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AAP National Conference: Social media can be a double-edged sword :

October 25, 2016

A 2009 Periodic Survey of Fellows found that 66% of pediatricians in their 30s and 26% of those in their 60s used social media sites such as Facebook to stay in touch with friends.

No doubt the number has risen since then. And with that increased use comes more opportunities to get into medicolegal trouble.

Jonathan Fanaroff, M.D., J.D., FAAP, will cover professional liability risks with the use of social media and ways to avoid them during a seminar titled “Fired for Using Facebook: Law, Ethics, Professionalism and the Use of Social Media (S4080).” The session will be held from 2-3:30 p.m. Tuesday in Room 304 of Moscone South.

“Pediatricians must be careful as there are a number of liability risks,” said Dr. Fanaroff, a member of the AAP Committee on Medical Liability and Risk Management. “Unprofessional content, including profanity, discriminatory language and suggestive material can have professional consequences. Additionally, it is very easy to violate patient privacy and confidentiality, including HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act).”

Dr. Fanaroff points to the case of a Rhode Island emergency department physician who was fired in 2010 for discussing a patient on Facebook. Even though she didn’t use the patient’s name, she gave enough details that the patient was identified by “unauthorized third parties.” The state medical board also found the physician guilty unprofessional conduct, and she was fined $500.

Despite the potential chilling effect this case could have among medical professionals, there is a time and a place for social media in the health care arena.

“There are many benefits to social media, including the ability to engage and rapidly share information with friends and family,” said Dr. Fanaroff, associate professor of pediatrics at Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital in Cleveland. “With the recent Zika virus outbreak, for example, pediatricians can discuss prevention measures.”

Pediatricians might even recommend social media sites to their patients.

“Patients, especially with rare diseases, can find an online community which allows them to feel less isolated, share information and support one another,” he said.

Since it looks like social media are here to stay, it behooves physicians to confront the risks instead of burying their heads in the sand. Dr. Fanaroff will offer a treasure trove of practical advice to attendees.

“Pediatricians should maintain professional boundaries in the use of social media,” he said. “They should also know and follow state licensing board regulations and employer policies. Finally, they need to recognize that discussing patients, even unidentified by name, may breach confidentiality and disrespect patient privacy.”

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