Social media can be a powerful tool to share information and communicate, but presents challenges, too.
Social media has become a valuable and universal way to communicate in today’s society, and pediatricians have long recognized its benefits – both personally and professionally — for advocacy, education, compassion and online support.
Given that social media also presents challenges, the American Academy of Pediatrics describes how physicians can navigate specific concerns in a clinical report, “Ethical Considerations in Pediatricians’ Use of Social Media,” to be published in the March 2021 Pediatrics (published online Feb. 22).
“As medical professionals, we’re required to maintain confidentiality, privacy and professionalism – whether we’re online or not,” said the report’s lead author, Robert Macauley, MD, FAAP. “What kind of boundaries are appropriate when using social media? Should a pediatrician accept a ‘friend request’ from a patient or a parent? Those are the types of questions we help answer with this report.”
Increasingly, patients want or expect to communicate with their physician through social media, according to research. This is particularly true of pediatric patients, who as “digital natives” are more familiar with expressing themselves through social media than are many adults.
About 90% of physicians today use social media for professional purposes, including finding and reading relevant medical information, studies show. The AAP report, written by its Committee on Bioethics and Committee on Medical Liability and Risk Management, examines the different ways social media can be used by pediatricians, from professional networking to engaging in patient education and health advocacy. Some pediatricians may use social media to conduct research, which carries ethical and legal complexities detailed in the clinical report.
The AAP recommends:
- Pediatricians who choose to use social media should have separate personal and professional social media pages.
- Pediatricians should follow state and federal privacy and confidentiality laws as well as the social media policies of their health care organization and professional societies. Independent practitioners should develop social media policies for their practices to protect patients and clarify expectations.
- Conflicts of interest—including in tweets, blog postings, and media appearances by pediatricians—should be disclosed.
- Pediatricians should use a HIPAA-compliant secure site with encryption when communicating about health care or rendering advice directly to patients or families.
- Before posting on social media, pediatricians should avoid divulging protected health information.
- Professional boundaries should be maintained in the use of social media. Accepting—and initiating —friend requests from current patients is discouraged. It is up to the pediatrician’s discretion whether to accept such requests from former patients.
Pediatricians should also monitor their online profile to protect against inaccurate postings and offer thoughtful responses to negative online reviews that honor confidentiality requirements.
Some of the common social media platforms that are mentioned in the report include Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Snapchat, and Pinterest.
“We recognize that in this complicated day and age that we are all looking for the best ways to communicate with people,” Dr. Macauley said. “Social media can be a powerful tool to help us connect, especially during the pandemic. We encourage everyone to use it in a thoughtful manner, not as a replacement for face-to-face conversation, but certainly as a way to make our voices heard.
Pediatricians are best served by modeling good practices.”
To request an interview, contact AAP Public Affairs.
The American Academy of Pediatrics is an organization of 67,000 primary care pediatricians, pediatric medical subspecialists and pediatric surgical specialists dedicated to the health, safety and well-being of infants, children, adolescents and young adults.