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Should you “friend” a patient on Facebook?

January 18, 2011

It seems like a silly question, but it’s a conundrum that more and more physicians and medical staff are facing in a society where social media reigns supreme.

Facebook is quickly evolving into more than just a social network, as more people are using the site to network with clients, market their businesses and sell products. But when personal lives and professional personas intersect on the website, conflicts can arise, particularly for those in the medical field where privacy and liability issues are a daily concern.

According to a piece in the New England Journal of Medicine, Sachin Jain, M.D., recently encountered this dilemma when a former patient wanted to be back in touch via Facebook. A few years earlier, Jain had helped deliver the woman’s baby. While curious to hear about the progress of the baby girl, Jain couldn’t help but wonder about the appropriateness of this interaction and the motives behind the patient’s friend request.

“In confirming this patient as my ‘friend’ on Facebook, I was merging my professional and personal lives,” Jain wrote. “From my Facebook page, (the patient) could identify and reach anyone in my network of friends, view an extensive collection of personal photographs, read my personal blog and review notations that others had left on my ‘wall.'”

As it turned out, the patient wanted to apply to medical school and was seeking advice, but the anxiety from the experience stayed with Jain.

The blog Kevin M.D. explains that doctors have to be aware of what they write on social networking sites and who they allow to see it. However, physicians, medical managers and other staff do have lives outside of their practices and are perfectly entitled to a private personal life, just as patients are also entitled to their privacy.

One possibility, writes the site, is to create two separate profiles: one to share pictures and personal information with family and friends and another dedicated solely to professional use.

A new privacy feature that has been developed by Facebook allows users to create lists of their friends. Then users can designate what profile information can be seen by each list and what kind of interactions can be had. For example, a physician can create a list of friends that are considered work contacts, then designate that this list cannot see photographs, wall posts or a list of other friends. Essentially, under these restrictions, the list could only use the site to email the user.

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