Physicians group adds social media guidelines to ethics manual

    For the first time, the American College of Physicians has added a section on responsible use of social media to its ethical manual.

    The paragraph-long guideline urges doctors to extend the same professionalism and confidentially they use in the clinic to their online activities.

    Dr. Virginia Hood, American College of Physicians president, said the guidelines do not touch on specifics, such as whether doctors should accept Facebook friend requests from patients. That’s intentional, she said.

    “We hope that people will look at that and think about these complex issues, rather than look at something that tells you, ‘Do this, don’t do that,’ ” Hood said.

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    Dr. Raina Merchant, assistant professor of emergency of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, said a lack of clear “dos and don’ts” is par for the course.

    “Increasingly, professional organizations are developing guidance documents for health-care providers,” Merchant said. “But I wouldn’t say that there’s a clear place to go, at this moment, for the definitive guidelines.”

    For now, there are obvious no-nos she shares with her medical students: no taking pictures of patients with smartphones and posting them online, and no answering patient-care questions via Facebook message.

    Merchant guesses guidelines will become more refined as use of social networking sites grows.

    “It still feels somewhat new to a lot of people,” Merchant said.

    An August study by Quantia MD, an online physician community, found that one-third of respondents said they had received a friend request from a patient on Facebook. Three-quarters of those physicians declined the request, largely due to concerns about liability and confidentiality.

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