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A Patient's Friend Request on Facebook - To Accept or Not?

If you're a Facebook user, you've probably had patients send you friend requests. Is accepting their request a good idea?

Facebook is a great way to stay in touch with friends and family members. But, as a healthcare professional, you may run into the dilemma of patients asking to be your "friend." Before you click "Accept," you should stop and consider the following.

Keep in mind that patients who are your Facebook “friends” may expect to be able to ask you treatment questions online. Due to the casual nature of this communication, it may be all too easy to answer these questions hastily and without considering that you are offering advice. What’s more, you could be unintentionally conducting telemedicine without the required license.

To maintain your personal and professional reputation while on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, LinkedIn or other social networking sites, you may wish to keep the following in mind:

  • Doctors are held to higher standards of personal conduct than other groups in society. The online environment breeds a false sense of security, where the lines are blurred between personal and professional relationships. It’s easy to reveal more information than appropriate either in your commentary or in your photos. If this information falls into the wrong hands, problems can arise about your integrity, employment and fitness to practice. Remember, once information is placed online, it’s virtually impossible to retract—it remains on the Internet indefinitely for all to search and retrieve.
  • Confidentiality still matters. If you talk “business” on the site, make sure to edit out all patient information to prevent a breach in patient confidentiality and a HIPAA violation. The same goes for colleagues who may not be happy if you talk about them. Many times board actions can be triggered by unhappy competitors.
  • Be careful with controversial topics. Although fear of how a patient may react shouldn’t keep you from exercising your right to express yourself, be aware of the potential impact of how you communicate your stances. If you talk about extremely controversial topics on Facebook, you may be forced to spend time defending your positions and possibly even lose patients who have opposing viewpoints.
  • Watch out for identity theft.  The threat of identity theft is real, thanks to information used in Facebook profiles. Ideally, you should make your profile private, so only your friends can view it, and limit the amount of personal information you share on your page. One final caveat: if there is a chance you could become involved in a malpractice allegation, don’t talk about it on a social networking site or anywhere else. Remember, your Facebook page, as well as any other public communications, may be used against you in any litigation and displayed on a large screen before a jury in court.
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