Medical blogging: Where to draw the line to protect patient privacy

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When it comes to posting about patient encounters or cases online, physician attitudes run the gamut from privacy paranoia to what some might call downright disrespectful.

Just this week, well-known physician blogger Bryan Vartabedian, MD, took a fellow doctor to task in a post calling attention to a Twitter stream in which she poked fun at a male ER patient with a delicate medical problem. On his own blog, 33 Charts, Vartabedian wrote, "Whether you change details or not, the use of the social space at the comical expense of those we're called to treat is irresponsible....This is something I'd expect from a frat house, not a treating physician."

In response to the post and the controversy that ensued, the anesthesiologist who posts as @mommy_doctor tweeted, "My tweets are about how hard I work, how much I care, how much I love my job, and how human a pursuit medicine is." However, she also acknowledged that she "crossed the line with a tweet or two" and that she would "tone it down-some."

Meanwhile, Buckeye Surgeon blogger Dr. Jeffrey Parks also took on the topic of physician of medical blogging in a post for MedCity News. Here are some of Parks' tips for posting about clinical cases:

  • Wait at least several weeks before posting about a particular case.
  • Never post anything about any celebrities under your care, as even anonymous details you might share could match information leaked by the press.
  • Make sure your operative consents contain a section about "using images for educational purposes," and remove any names from the images before posting.

Vartabedian, along with well-known physician blogger Kevin Pho, were among the physicians consulted for an expansive report recently released by the Massachusetts Medical Society providing guidelines for physicians to engage in professional use of social media. The 12-page report supports the use of physicians' "carefully planned and professionally executed participation in social media" as an "effective method to connect with colleagues, advance professional expertise, educate patients, and enhance the public profile and reputation of our profession." MMS plans to broadly disseminate its new guidelines and explore the possibility of sponsoring Continuing Medical Education activities on the topic of the professional use of social media by physicians.

To learn more:
- read this post from MedCity News
- see this post from 33 Charts
- check out this post from the Massachusetts Medical Society
- read the social media guidelines from the MMS
- download the MMS' report (.pdf)

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