Social media has revolutionized the way people communicate in the modern world today. Websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have become the chosen standard communication tool in the world. Other forms that also dominate the communication tools include blogs, Wikis, and podcasts. Many professionals have quickly adopted the new form of communication, but it has specific implications for physicians and related healthcare professionals. The communication is important, dependent on trust between the physician and the patient, the ability of the physician to effectively perform their job and the patient to respect the patients advice.
Due to technology, it has been estimated that 59% of adult Americans searched for medical advice online in a 12-month period. Reviews of physicians conduct and abilities is included in these searches (McKay, 2010). Medical professionals will need to take precautions to protect themselves both legally and ethically and to retain the trust of their patients is vital to the effective functioning of their job.
Maintaining a strict sense of professionalism is vital to the duties of physicians. Physicians that have lost the trust and respect of those they treat no longer perform their duties to the best of their abilities. It has been demonstrated that social media has the ability to create a rapid increase to perceived problems. In 2008, the group of doctors for Obama mobilized thousands of physicians on facebook to make their opinions and concerns about the new healthcare policy known, with the effect of having a demonstrable influence on the final legislation and an ongoing voice in President Obama's healthcare agenda (Jain, 2009).
A study conducted in 2008, focusing solely on the social networking site, Facebook, showed that of medical students and residents of a selected sample group 44.5% had a facebook account and two-thirds of them kept their account public with "a significant portion having subjectively inappropriate content" (Gorrindo, T, et al., 2008). Some examples drawn from the 2008 study include public facebook group created by medical students with titles such as 'PIMP' (Party of Important Physicians), and 'Physicians looking for trophy wives in training' (Gorrindo, T, et al., 2008). The public profiles selected by this study disclosed physician's home postal address (6.1% of the time), sexual orientation (52.4%), email address (83.3%), and field of study (79.6%). While the impact of this information was not followed up on, by the study it is easy to be ascertain how such personal and sensitive information could lead to trouble for a physician whose public social networking profile angered a patient.
In addition to the personal consequences at risk for a physician, unprofessional conduct on social networking sites could also have unintended professional and legal consequences as well. "Already the first lawsuits have been filed against physicians whom patients accused of violating the privacy of medical information acts, states, Robert Coffield, a West Virginia based specialist in health care compliance and regulatory law" (Hawn, C., 2009). For example, a doctor who blogged about their trials in dealing with a difficult patient, in a way that would make such a client identifiable, and forgot that either the patient or a family member or friend had been added to their social network would be inviting a litigation with possible monetary and professional penalties.