Although Facebook has long-since been woven into the fabric of modern life, it continues to pose ethical challenges for government officials and professionals in many fields. How much personal information should they share with others? Are their traditional codes of conduct robust enough to cover the behaviors associated with the use of Facebook and other social media outlets?
Physicians, nurses and other health professionals know they must never disclose confidential health information concerning their patients on Facebook or anywhere else. Beyond this, new media outlets create countless situations in which “acceptable” behavior for government officials and professionals remains unclear.
To their credit, some professional societies including the AMA have recently issued guidelines for acceptable behavior on social media outlets. Surprisingly however, scientists have published few studies describing professionals’ actual use of such sites.
Recognizing this gap, Ghassan Moubarak and colleagues at Hopital Lariboisiere in Paris designed a questionnaire to study the way young physicians use Facebook. Moubarak’s group mailed the survey to 405 residents and fellows at Rouen University Hospital. Nearly half of them responded, including 160 residents and 42 fellows. The mean age of respondents was 29.
Seventy-three percent of the survey respondents reported having a Facebook profile. Nearly a quarter of them, 24%, said they visited the site several times per day, and an additional 28% reported visiting it once per day.
Ninety-nine of the respondents who had a Facebook profile used their real name on it. Over 90% of the respondents also displayed their birthdates and a headshot, although only 59% listed their current university and 55% listed their current position. Sixty-one percent of the respondents had modified privacy settings on the site, and 85% said they would never accept friend requests from patients. The remaining 15% said they would decide about friend requests from patients “on an individual basis.” None of the respondents said they would automatically accept a friend request from a patient.
Surprisingly few doctors, only 8, had actually received a friend request from a patient. Four of these doctors accepted the request. Nearly half (48%) believed their relationship with a patient would be altered if the patient knew he or she had a Facebook account.
“Careful reflection is needed to define better the implications of electronic communication media on the traditional role of doctors and on the new aspects of medical professionalism,” the authors concluded. “The need to keep a distance from the patient and to protect one’s personal information and photos outweighs the fear of embarrassing the patient or losing his/her confidence.”
The scientists offered several “Facebook etiquette” suggestions for physicians. Among them, physicians should decline friend requests from patients and recognize that patients can misinterpret pictures and comments posted on Facebook, they advised.
Readers seeking additional recommendations for physicians on Facebook should access the recently published AMA guidelines on the matter.
Moubarak’s write-up appears in the Journal of Medical Ethics.