AMA Journal of Ethics. May 2015, Volume 17, Number 5: 441-447.
In the Literature
Professional Guidelines for Social Media Use: A Starting Point
The American College of Physicians and the Federation of State Medical Boards’ guidelines for online medical professionalism apply existing norms of communication and confidentiality to new settings but will need to be modified in light of technological advances and unanswered questions.
Terry Kind, MD, MPH
Farnan JM, Snyder Sulmasy L, Worster BK, et al. Online medical professionalism: patient and public relationships: policy statement from the American College of Physicians and the Federation of State Medical Boards. Ann Intern Med. 2013;158:620-627.
In real estate, it’s all about where—location, location, location. In comedy, the key is timing. In social media, it’s about both when and where. The timing and context—the community norms, membership, privacy, and searchability of the platform—of a post will affect how it is perceived, and yet a message can be reposted, shared, and disseminated at any future time in other contexts. It is at once fleeting and permanent. Given this complexity, as well as the relative novelty of social media, it is not surprising that guidelines have been issued regarding the use of social media by those in medicine.
What Should Guidelines Be, and When Should They Appear?
What are guidelines for? When should a given set of guidelines be developed and disseminated? When do we seek, use, ignore, or update guidelines? Guidelines are particularly useful in new or changing areas. If a knowledge or practice gap is identified, we seek guidelines to fill that gap. Guidelines are employed to avoid errors or might be used after an error is made, in remediation or reflection. Effective guidelines often include key questions with discussion rather than proclamations. Proclamations are for policy; they delineate consequences. Guidelines are instead intended to advise, explore, and even mentor  the learner through a set of questions and scenarios. Rather than each individual student, trainee, attending physician, or other health care professional going it alone and making mistakes that impact the public trust (even if he or she learns from them), guidelines allow those with experience to inform others’ behavior.
Social media guidelines should be designed to help social media users (or social media contemplators) recognize the types of opportunities and challenges that arise in new and changing online platforms. Guidelines applicable to professional conduct in “offline” in-person settings can also provide a useful model for how we should conduct ourselves online.
The ACP-FSMB Guidelines on Online Medical Professionalism
Following the AMA’s policy on professionalism in the use of social media in 2010 , the American College of Physicians (ACP) and the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) together issued guidelines on online medical professionalism in 2013 and explicitly stated that their guidelines are “meant to be a starting point, and they will need to be modified and adapted as technology advances and best practices emerge” . Table 1 reproduces the ACP-FSMB official positions on online medical professionalism and identifies key considerations that arise from them.
The ACP-FSMB guidelines discuss the ways in which our interactions on social media are not private and remind us that we are not interacting with just one person. Social media is a public forum.
One notably helpful component of the ACP-FSMB guidelines is the recommendation to pause before posting. Trust yourself, but pause before posting to reflect on how best to protect and respect patients, their privacy, and your professional relationships and responsibilities. It is helpful to think of the use of social media as a public speaking arrangement in which everything is recorded and shared.
Social media is not one particular environment or location; there are more and less private settings and more and less individual (one-on-one) conversations. It helps to think about your conduct on social media as occurring in a setting where you are exposed to patients and the public at large—as media. It is the mixed setting of social media that should be acknowledged. Social media is everywhere and anytime, both private and public, both in the present, the past, and indefinitely into the future. That awareness should give you that “professional pre-post” pause moment.
The “starting point” should always be our existing norms of communication, confidentiality, and all the relevant tenets of professionalism, applied to new settings. Consider the following questions. How should you, and how do you, conduct yourself with patients, when you are with them in person? Does this change when you are speaking with them on the phone or by email ? How should you, and how do you, conduct yourself when near patients (in a hospital elevator, the cafeteria, the open physician or nurse workstation)? If the answer is “it depends,” then perhaps one set of guidelines is insufficient or cannot capture the nuances. That is why the ACP-FSMB recommendations are only a starting point.
The Evolution of Online Medical Professionalism
These ideas about online medical professionalism are rooted in traditional boundaries, but even those may change over time. For example, I don’t insist that my patients call me Dr. Kind, as many doctors might once have done. My outpatient pediatric colleagues don’t necessarily wear the traditional white coats anymore. Like offline customs, social media conventions will change over time.
We should, however, retain the principles underlying norms of professionalism and apply them to new contexts. Twenty years ago we were cautioned against “excessive self-disclosure,” and this remains useful advice in the present social media era . In accordance with the Association of American Medical Colleges’ (AAMC’s) core “entrustable professional activities” (EPAs) for entering residency , physicians should maintain their integrity; compassion; respect for others; responsiveness to patient needs that supersedes self-interest; respect for privacy and autonomy; accountability to patients, society, and the profession; sensitivity to diverse populations; and commitment to ethical principles regarding care, confidentiality, informed consent, and business practices. These should be upheld irrespective of “when” and “where.”
The peer-reviewed literature pertaining to use of social media in medicine began with cautions about potential problems of social media and then recognized opportunities [11-13]. Then came a debate about separating professional and personal identities online [14, 15], which is called for in both the ACP-FMSB  and AMA policies  but also criticized as either unnecessary or impossible.
Next has been the move to include social media in medical student education (i.e., both teaching about social media and using it in curricular delivery) and to trust trainees to use it properly  rather than to limit their access. With competencies in professionalism, ethical conduct, and communication, physicians should be equipped to enter residency entrusted with responsible social media use. Social media is now part of quality improvement initiatives, patient engagement efforts, and the measurement of scholarly impact using “altmetrics” (alternative, nontraditional metrics such as online activity) . We will continue to move forward where best practices take us, careful to ensure that we secure the public’s trust as we move forward in online spaces towards reflection, lifelong learning, and discovery in medicine using social media [18, 19].
Ultimately, we are in a public space when we use social media and, with sharing, the timing of any given post is undefined and indefinite. The reach is far and permanent. We’ll keep the one-on-one, in person, clinical encounters to treat our patients, but we can go on to have an even greater public health and educational impact online. There are many positive social media uses for health care professionals. There are lifelong learning  and academic sharing and public health opportunities. It is an invitation to communicate and to share ideas.
As technology advances, social media guidelines will be modified, and yet the underlying principles of professionalism will remain. Best practices will emerge, and outpace the guidelines, but if they are “best” they should maintain—and even enhance—the public’s trust in health care professionals. And in moving beyond the starting point, we note that there is no end to the need for professionalism and doing good; it is perennial.
Chretien KC, Kind T. Social media and clinical care: ethical, professional, and social implications. Circulation. 2013;127(13):1413-1421.
Cunningham A. Social media and medical professionalism. Med Educ. 2014;48(2):110-112.
General Medical Council. Doctors’ use of social media. March 25, 2013. http://www.gmc-uk.org/ Doctors__use_of_social_media.pdf_51448306.pdf. Accessed January 10, 2015.
Kimball E, Kim J. Virtual boundaries: ethical considerations for use of social media in social work. Soc Work. 2013;58(2):185-188.
Lerner BH. Policing online professionalism: are we too alarmist? JAMA Intern Med. 2013;173(19):1767-1768.
Mostaghimi A, Crotty BH. Professionalism in the digital age. Ann Intern Med. 2011;154(8):560-562.
Shore R, Halsey J, Shah K, Crigger BJ, Douglas SP; AMA Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs (CEJA). Report of the AMA Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs: professionalism in the use of social media. J Clin Ethics. 2011;22(2):165-172.
Canadian Medical Association. Social media and Canadian physicians: issues and rules of engagement. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Medical Association; 2011. http://policybase.cma.ca/dbtw-wpd/Policypdf/PD12-03.pdf. Accessed January 10, 2015.
Terry Kind, MD, MPH, is assistant dean of clinical education and associate professor of pediatrics at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences in Washington, DC. Among her academic areas of interest are professionalism and reflection in medical education. She tweets @Kind4Kids and blogs at www.PediatricCareer.org.
Related in the AMA Journal of Ethics
The viewpoints expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the AMA.
© 2015 American Medical Association. All Rights Reserved. ISSN 2376-6980