Social media makes GPs' lives harder

Young doctors who are social-media savvy often struggle to maintain professional boundaries with patients, research shows.

And medical schools are increasingly advising that a casual Facebook post could pose a threat to students' future careers.

An article in the latest Lancet Oncology journal shows about two-thirds of young doctors surveyed struggled to be objective and truthful with patients they liked, with researchers cautioning against being "chummy" with patients.

Most of the doctors surveyed said they had hugged patients, given out their cellphone numbers, and allowed patients to use their first names - all of which "blurred" the border between patient and friend, the authors say.

About one in 10 female doctors, and nearly one in five male doctors, surveyed said they had accepted a patient as a friend on Facebook.

The survey in August was conducted among junior European oncologists, but the authors said the ubiquity of social media made it difficult for any doctor to maintain appropriate boundaries with patients.

"The burgeoning use of social media potentially makes it hard for any individual doctor to maintain a truly private personal life."

New Zealand Medical Association deputy chairman Stephen Child, who is also heavily involved in training young doctors, said the two biggest medical schools, at Otago and Auckland universities, both covered social media training in recognition of the growing risk to a doctor's reputation and of compromising patient care.

He advised junior doctors not to become Facebook friends with patients, but giving out cellphone numbers and using first names were really personal decisions for each doctor. There was an inherent tension between having empathy for patients and getting too close.

"Yes, there is a struggle, there should be a struggle, because that's what caring is all about."

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Auckland oncologist Ben Lawrence, who has only recently moved from junior to senior doctor, said some patients had his cellphone number, but he deliberately did not have a Twitter or Facebook account, to avoid patients checking up on him.

"It is difficult to maintain a professional relationship if your patients can check up on what you're doing on a Saturday night."

In the past few decades, doctors had rightly shifted from remote, cold clinicians to more accessible human carers, he said. But there was a risk this could go too far.

Any responsible doctor should pass a patient who became a friend on to a colleague, but that could be difficult in smaller hospitals or for rural GPs.

The New Zealand Medical Students' Association - in conjunction with its Australian counterpart - had published a dos and don'ts guide to social media for doctors. It includes not commenting on patients or criticising colleagues online, even anonymously; not Facebook "friending" patients; and keeping a strict watch on privacy settings.

 - The Dominion Post

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