As a physician, you might be drawn to the idea of using X (formerly known as Twitter), Instagram, Threads, Facebook, TikTok, or other social media platforms to support physician advocacy, disseminate health information, or engage with physician peers. Here’s our advice for using social media in a way that is mindful of medico-legal risk.
1. Establish clear boundaries
Maintain appropriate boundaries between your professional and personal social media use. If you use social media both professionally and personally, consider keeping a separate account for each purpose. Remember that content from a personal account can still be read by individuals who know you primarily as a physician, and that the public and the Colleges have high expectations of behaviour for all physicians, which extend to their social media use.
2. Consult College guidelines
Colleges have material to guide physicians on how to engage online while meeting legal and professional obligations. The material includes information on how to respect professional boundaries and uphold patient privacy.
3. Develop a social media policy for your office
Physicians planning to use social media should develop a policy, potentially using their College’s guidelines as a starting point. This policy should apply to all staff members working within your office or workplace, and should be communicated clearly to all individuals. Refer to existing workplace policies if they exist.
4. Recognize that the reach is wide
Because social media has a broad reach, your information should be general in nature and mindful of a non-physician audience. Keep in mind that the information will likely be viewed by Canadians outside of your province or territory, as well as people in other countries. Remember that content shared in private messages or private forums can still be shared publicly via screenshots. Anything you post can be accessed years into the future, and even when a post has been deleted, a screenshot of that post might circulate, permanently outside of the control of the original poster. As well, it is prudent to begin a new account for professional purposes, rather than developing a professional presence using an account that was previously used for personal purposes. If you do plan to reappropriate a previously-personal account, consider reviewing your existing archive of content.
5. Keep messaging simple
Messaging can be hard to control on social media, where users might often misinterpret information, and might not see or read the entirety of a message. When engaging in health advocacy or health promotion, you should keep your communications short and simple, and include references or disclaimers when appropriate. For complex or nuanced information, other media are potentially more suitable.
6. Consider your communication style
Communication principles that apply when speaking to patients, stakeholders, or the media also apply when using social media. Individuals using social media should understand that their messages might be excerpted, re-shared, or reappropriated by other users. Be careful to avoid posting any information that could be viewed as establishing a doctor-patient relationship. It is important to be cautious, and to be mindful of the fact that a social media user might not understand what would constitute the establishment of a doctor-patient relationship. Keep medical comments general, rather than specific to an individual. Also, bear in mind that communications directed at a non-physician audience can be more successful if they are simple and free of medical jargon.
7. Participate in dialogues respectfully
When it's appropriate, you may choose to answer certain questions or respond to comments in a discussion. Comments, reactions, support, and contrary views should always be delivered respectfully and professionally. Be mindful of your own potential biases and your emotional state. If a social media comment upsets you, consider pausing and taking a short break from the platform before responding. Remember also that sometimes the most appropriate response is not to respond.
8. Protect patient privacy
Social media is ideal for connecting with patients collectively on issues such as general health promotion, but you must not communicate identifiable patient information over social media. Content communicated via social media is unprotected and publicly accessible. Some social media platforms allow physician-only groups to participate and share expertise in a way that mimics grand rounds in hospitals where doctors gather to discuss cases; these online practitioner communities are still virtual spaces and can be subject to security breaches. Consider what security measures and procedures should be adopted to avoid privacy breaches, especially with regards to patient information. Remember that a breach can occur without patient names; recognizable details may be sufficient for a breach. Keeping medical information as generic as possible will reduce potential patient identification.
9. Understand your liability
Defamation – that is, making false statements that can harm the reputation of an individual or an organization – can lead to allegations of libel or slander, on social media and otherwise. It is also the case that plagiarism and copyright infringement on social media can lead to legal action. When a member faces allegations of defamation, the CMPA will consider whether the allegations arise out of the member’s health advocacy activities. CMPA assistance will not generally be available for advocacy matters arising primarily from business or personal issues.
10. Focus on mindful engagement
Many physicians use social media to make connections with peers, share career achievements, support professional development, and promote health advocacy. Social media can be a beneficial tool which amplifies engagement and connection. By approaching social media with clear intent, consideration, and a strong understanding of the platforms’ limitations, you can set yourself up for mindful engagement and a positive experience.