If a current or past patient friends you on Facebook, what should you do? If you come across a physician community online where docs are sharing experiences and treatments, should you jump into the discussion? These issues and more are detailed in a new set of social media guidelines released by the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMBs).

Healthcare providers have a growing interest in using social media for patient care. The FSMB’s Special Committee on Ethics and Professional helps guide physicians to do so within the “proper framework for professional ethics.”

According to the guidelines, physicians are discouraged from interacting with current or past patients on personal social networking sites such as Facebook. Online interaction with patients about their medical treatment – within the physician-patient relationship – can occur, but should never occur on a personal social networking or social media website.

The FSMB committee also warns physicians that they should be aware that any information they post on a social networking site may be disseminated (whether intended or not) to a larger audience, and that what they say may be taken out of context or remain publicly available online in perpetuity.

When interacting with other medical professionals in an online forum, the FSMB committee emphasizes that it is the physician’s responsibility to ensure that these networks are secure/password-protected and that only verified and registered users have access to the information. This is so non-physicians do not gain access and view discussions as implying medical advice

Physicians are also advised to:
Use separate personal and professional social networking sites.
Report any unprofessional behavior that is witnessed to supervisory and/or regulatory authorities.
Always adhere to the same principles of professionalism online as they would offline.
Cyber-bullying by a physician towards any individual is inappropriate and unprofessional.
Refer, as appropriate, to an employer’s social media or social networking policy for direction on the proper use of social media and social networking in relation to their employment.

For the full set of guidelines: Federation of State Medical Boards