Doctor-Patient Relationships and Social Media

Dr. Bryan Vartabedian, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Texas Children’s Hospital/Baylor College of Medicine, writes in his blog, 33 charts about a question that puzzles many physicians.  What is the appropriate protocol when a patient reaches out over social media? Many  physicians are hesitant to become involved in social media because of this factor.  Dr. Vartabedian offers one rule, and some simple words of advice that will keep both physicians and patients happy.

There are two types of questions that physicians may encounter in public spaces:

1)      Patient non-specific. It is fine to answer patient non-specific questions online. An example of this type of question is: What type of sunscreen do you recommend for toddlers?

2)      Patient specific. Never answer patient-specific questions online This rule answers almost any question about social media and patients. An example of this type of question is:  I have a dark red rash down the side of my right arm that is burning and itching. What medicine should I take to stop the pain?

There are three types of people that reach out to health providers over social media:

  • People you don’t know- As a physician, you simply tell these people that you cannot legally advise them until they are an established patient.
  • Patients – In this situation, a patient is reaching out because they need help. Message your patient that don’t want to discuss their problem in a public forum, but would be happy to talk to them over the phone. Dr. Vartabedian also documents the encounter, making it clear that the patient began the contact in public.
  • People you know loosely- This situation may feel different from the people you don’t know, but in reality you should respond to them in the same way, stating that you cannot advise someone who is not a patient.

In the situation of family or friends, arrange a time when you can speak to them privately over the phone or in person. The rule of never answering patient-specific questions may sound like you are limiting the flow of information, but you are actually opening the door for a person with an issue to visit you in your office where you can devote the time and attention that their problem deserves.

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