Professionalism in social media is a balancing act

Jun 09, 2016, 4:00am

To establish and maintain a professional medical image in social media, pay careful attention to the content of posts. Be aware that social media content is admissible as evidence in courts of law.

Social media isn’t all fun and games. It’s serious business and keeping one’s professionalism is paramount. Dermatologists’ activities on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other social networking sites can and will be used for and against them, according to David J. Goldberg, M.D., J.D.

Dr. Goldberg“All materials on these sites can be used as evidence (both positive and negative) in a court of law and by state board of medical examiners.  Most common suits are for either medical malpractice or fraud,” according to Dr. Goldberg, clinical professor of dermatology and director of laser research at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Dr. Goldberg is also an adjunct law professor at Fordham Law School.

Separate personal from professional

Dermatologists, like all physicians, should separate their personal and professional lives on social media platforms and adhere to professional standards of practice, according to experts. On Facebook, for example, that means having a practice page and a very separate personal page, blocked from general view with privacy settings.

Should dermatologists “friend” their patients? Dr. Goldberg says it’s best to keep friendly activities on personal—not practice or professional—pages.

“If a personal site does this, it may be perceived as fraternization with patients—raising thorny ethical issues,” Dr. Goldberg says.    

What’s off limits?

If you’re goal is to gain followers and improve your professional presence, you’ll want to avoid topics that might alienate the very people you’re trying to reach.

Dr. Vartabedian“It really depends on how you view your feed and how you view your public presence. For most physicians, they want to maintain a professional presence in public. Similarly, when you are on a couple of platforms, where there are patients and hospital administrators, and your colleagues are there, you’re going to conduct yourself like you would if you were in a restaurant in public or a meeting,” says Bryan Vartabedian, M.D., pediatrician, assistant professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, and founder of 33Charts.com, a blog he started in 2009, which explores the intersection of medicine, social media and technology.

Highly-charged personal opinions about controversial topics are, in most cases, better left to your personal conversations and platforms. Dr. Vartabedian says that he avoids religion and politics, tends not to talk about alcohol, and doesn’t badmouth his employer and hospital.

“There are some physicians who are really passionate about the fact that we, as physicians, should be talking about politics, and we should be politically active. I get that,” Dr. Vartabedian says. “But if you take the Presidential campaign during the last election…let’s say you’re a dermatologist and you had a very busy and active Twitter following. If you started talking about which candidate you were endorsing or behind, you would very likely have alienated half the people you were following.”

Professional, but human

Social media engagement means revealing your character and parts of your personality. So, while doctors need to keep things professional, they should try to avoid coming across mechanically or robotically.

Patricia RedsickerPatricia Redsicker, social media manager for the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP) and a former social media consultant for dermatologists and others, says it helps to build relationships when doctors show personality. Some might sign off on blogs and some posts with their first name, like Dr. Joe.

“I’ve been talking to this family doctor in New Jersey, and he always signs off ‘Greg’ on Google +. I feel like I know him. Makes him more approachable and likeable,” Redsicker says. “Definitely show your personality, but be careful with the actual content of the conversation.”