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Set rules for docs on social media

February 17th, 2014

by Nancy Cawley Jean

Back in 2011, I wrote a Hospital Impact post about why doctors should be careful when using social media. I'm not changing my stance on the issue, but I recognize that social media, and clinicians' use of it, has come a long way in a short amount of time. If it was accepted before, it's expected now!

So what prescription should doctors write for themselves when it comes to using social media? The answer is pretty simple. Use it, and remember what it's for!

Recently, the Rhode Island Board of Medical Licensure and Discipline issued guidelines for doctors on how to use social media appropriately. I'm glad they did this for two reasons--First, it lets doctors know that it's OK to post out there in the big social sphere, and they won't lose their license by doing so. Second, it gives them the dos and don'ts of what to do.

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A lot of doctors already have figured out that social media is a great tool. They are leaders in the field, and their social media use has allowed them to voice their opinions on hot health topics, to serve as thought leaders in the healthcare and social media, and to simply share information.

Kevin Pho (@KevinMD on Twitter and on his blog) and Wendy Sue Swanson (@SeattleMamaDoc on Twitter and a blogger for Seattle Children's Hospital) are two people who immediately come to mind. They learned early on the power of social media and have been touting the benefits of connecting with people through these channels for years.

They've been tweeting, speaking at conferences, and becoming leaders in the industry through their openness to and their acceptance of new technology to reach people, help people, and just maybe, make people healthier.

Don't forget the other side of the coin. There have been some well-publicized cases of physicians using social media inappropriately. In one such case, a R.I. physician posted protected patient information on Facebook. She was fined, and she removed her Facebook account. In a more recent case, a physician clearly stepped over the line when talking about a patient's chronic lateness and a stillbirth.

That's why having official guidelines is not only recommended, but also a necessary part of hospital business these days. Well before the R.I. Board of Medical Licensure and Discipline developed its guidelines, we developed rules for our physicians. By arming our physicians with the information they needed, they would be less likely to get into trouble, and perhaps be less timid about using social media as a communication tool.

When the R.I. Board came out with its guidelines, we saw it as an opportunity to remind our own physicians of the guidelines we already had in place. From our own @RIHospital, I'm thrilled that one of our emergency medicine doctors, Megan Ranney, M.D. (@MeganRanney), has taken to Twitter like a pro. The Associated Press even interviewed her for a story on the release of the new social media guidelines.

"I do think you have to use your professional judgment," Ranney said in the article. She also gave good advice--think twice before posting something.

In today's social world, hospital communications and marketing efforts must include keeping doctors abreast of the many uses of social media. Get them on board, let them comment, let them blog--being "social" can help position your hospital's brand positively, if, of course, the tools are used appropriately.

Do you support doctors' use of social media at your hospital? Do you have your own guidelines? I'd love to hear from you!

Nancy Cawley Jean is a senior media relations officer for the Lifespan health system in Rhode Island, managing social media for five hospitals and a women's medicine practice.

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