Why I Imagine Some Docs are Scared of Engaging Patients on Social Media

Oct. 31, 2012
A recent report, brought to my attention by the nice folks at The Advisory Board Company, looked at how more doctors in the U.K. are using the Medical Defence Union (MDU) because they are being stalked on social media by an infatuated patient. Reading this report and having covered social media in healthcare extensively, I can understand why some doctors are reluctant to connect with their patients on social media, even when it has nothing to do with love.

First off, I hope everyone affected by Hurricane Sandy has weathered the storm. My thoughts and prayers go out to those who were not as lucky as those of us who were able to stay safe and dry.

In the world of healthcare, it was surreal to see NYU Langone Medical Center workers carrying out intensive care unit, neonatal, and other patients into ambulances in the middle of complete darkness because of a power failure. Kudos to everyone involved in getting those patients safely to another location in an intense situation!

In non-hurricane news, I couldn’t help but find amusement in a recent report I saw from our neighbors across the pond. The report, brought to my attention by the nice folks at The Advisory Board Company, looked at how more doctors in the U.K. are using the Medical Defence Union (MDU) because they are being stalked on social media by an infatuated patient. MDU is a non-profit legal organization providing protection for various medical professionals.

According to MDU, between 2007-2011, 100 doctors used MDU for its help in dealing with a love-struck patient that was pursuing them on Facebook, Twitter, or another social media platform. This is up from 73 doctors who used MDU for the same reason, between 2002-2006.

"Members report being bombarded with messages to their mobiles or email, and Twitter or Facebook accounts can, in some ways, be even more intrusive than receiving a stream of letters," Claire Macaulay, a legal adviser with the MDU, said to The Guardian.

The article has some good specific examples, where both male and female patients hounded their physician in the pursuit of love.  In each of the examples, the clueless patient doesn’t relent when trying to connect personally with the doctor. 

Reading this report and having covered social media in healthcare extensively, I can understand why some doctors are reluctant to connect with their patients on social media, even when it has nothing to do with love. There are patient-doctor boundaries, privacy and HIPAA concerns, and there is separating your personal life from your professional life.

What Tim Ringrose, CEO of doctors.uk.net, a UK-based online physician network, said to The Guardian rings true: "Social media presents doctors with significant dilemmas. Their careers–and in some cases personal safety–can be at risk.”

I understand the desire to better engage your patient, especially when it’s through a medium that they’re more equipped to use. I love hearing about people like Jeff Livingston, M.D., a partner at the Irving, Texas-based MacArthur OB/GYN, a seven-physician, two mid-level provider obstetrics and gynecology practice. I’ve written about Livingston quite a bit, because I think he is a prime example of how a doctor can effectively leverage social media to better reach his patients.

Yet despite my admiration for Livingston, I understand some doctors’ desire to stay off Facebook and Twitter, and look for other ways to reach out and interact with a patient beyond the four walls of a hospital or medical facility.  Stories like the one from The Guardian are proof that for doctors, interacting with patients on social media platforms, can ride a fine between progressive and dangerous.

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