Doctors warned to hide social media from hypochondriac patients

The advent of the web has opened up a variety of possibilities for improving access to health information, with sites offering details on every ailment under the sun at the fingertips of web users.

It has also meant that the cyber-hypochondriac is now able to sift through swathes of pseudo-medical info until they self-diagnose their mild headache with their flesh-eating, parasitic tropical disease of choice.

But at least such hypochondriac hypotheses are usually put on hold in the face of the more frightening prospect of coming into contact with real diseases while in the queue for the local quack, meaning that doctors are spared the full onslaught of our collective paranoia.

Now, medical researchers in the US have highlighted the problems arising through the use of social media such as Facebook or Twitter as a potential way in which over-eager patients can gain 24 hour access to their GP or physician, arguably adding to an already hectic workload, with frantic patients pinging instant messages about ebola symptoms at three in the morning.

This has led to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre physicians Arash Mostaghimi, MD, MPA and Bradley H. Crotty, MD calling for doctors to be wary of the rise of web tools such as social media, and to create a ‘dual citizenship’ in the online sphere with regards to the separation of personal and private identities.

“Unlike previous advances in communication such as the telephone and e-mail, the inherent openness of social media and self publication, combined with improved online searching capabilities, can complicate the separation of professional and private digital personae,” the two doctors wrote in the Annals of Internal Medicine journal.

According to the two doctors there is a need to “create boundaries that both protect the doctor-patient relationship” and help prevent the potential awkwardness of moments such as the prospect of “fielding a friend request from a patient”.

Over 30 percent of US physicians have some sort of a personal presence online, and with 17 percent of blogs containing indentity information of doctors, the researchers point to the internet as a “public forum where you have little to no control over who hears what you say, even if the material is not intended for the public”.

However, Dr Tom Day at Chase Farm Hospital in London believes that it is a problem that doctors have always had to deal with historically, with village doctors having aching limbs and suspect boils thrust in their direction at their local pub for centuries.

“Doctors in small communities always get asked questions by members of the community, for example on an island where everyone knows their GP, or by family members or even friends so it is something that we are already used to, but of course now it could make it worse with social media sites,” he told Techeye.

“People should be careful with what they show online, as they might not want patients to see photos of them drunk or messing around on hospital beds at work, but that is perhaps the same with all jobs.”

However, just like the two researchers, he does believe that there are potential benefits from using social media, such as public health announcement via twitter, as long as they manage to do so in a more intelligent way than has been exhibited by other professions such as knuckleheaded Premier League footballers.

And this is something that celebrity doctor and television presenter Christian Jessen believes should in fact be promoted as a tool for reaching out to the public.

“Obviously there have been cases of doctors twatting about in hospitals which has perhaps given rise to a bit of concern over public perception, but the majority of doctors wouldn’t be doing that,” Jessen told TechEye.

“The current guidelines by governing bodies have one foot in the past and say that you shouldn’t add patients on Facebook, but this is not at all forward looking, and as a doctor who is in the public eye, of course I am going to want to add people.”

According to Jessen sites such as Twitter give doctors the chance to be viewed as better communicators, something that has not always happened in the past.

“It is important that doctors come across as normal and human, and I am not sure that that has always been the case with crusty old bow tied professor being brought on television for public health announcements; people don’t relate to that.

“Twitter is a much more personal method of engaging with people and it should be encouraged, particularly from a public health point of view.”

Furthermore Jessen believes that as long as a clear line is drawn over what is appropriate to respond to in terms of queries by patients then there is no reason why doctors shouldn’t engage with the public directly.

“As long as you make it clear what you will and won’t reply to, and ignore inappropriate questions then discussions on a general level are of benefit to both doctors and patients.”