I don’t think you really need one. And here is why.
Social media is merely a communication tools just like a telephone. We don’t have a phone policy in place for employees yet I would assume they already know what is appropriate and what is not when talking with patients or parents on the phone. Thus we don’t need a document to tell employees how to act online. A well written employee manual ought to be enough to set the proper guidelines.
Michael Hyatt, wrote a fantastic post about this issue: he highlights 5 reasons why you don’t need one. He says that 1) your people can be trusted; 2) social media are just one more way to communicate; 3) more rules only make your company more bureaucratic; 4) formal policies only discourage people from participating and finally; 5) You probably already have policies that govern inappropriate behavior.
But what about patients?
Many doctors fear that parents might reach out to them online seeking medical advice. What are we supposed to do if they ask a question about their children? What if they ask for medical advice, what then? Should we have a policy for parents that describe what they can and cannot post on Facebook?
My wife (a pediatrician) fields medical questions all the time from friends, family and even strangers in real life. Yes, even strangers… as soon as they find out she is a pediatrician, at the park, the pool or at church, people always ask medical questions.
Oh, you’re a pediatrician… you know, I’m worried about little Timmy here. He is gaining weight and I don’t know what to do… what do you think I should do?
She of course is very careful with her advice, but generally she does give it. She’ll say something like, limiting TV time to 2 hours a day helps children lose weight. She may also suggest to cut soda and juices or something along those lines.
She doesn’t diagnose anybody, prescribe antibiotics or offer advice that could potentially cause harm to a child she doesn’t know. If someone ask (which rarely happens) a question that she doesn’t feel comfortable answering, she politely says it is difficult for her to provide any advice since she doesn’t know little Timmy, hasn’t performed an examination and that they should probably take little Timmy to the pediatrician, she’ll know what to.
So, what if a patient reaches out for medical advice online? How about, instead of writing a formal policy that discourages people from asking questions, you respond appropriately by giving them generic advice that they could find themselves online (thus making you their trusted source of pediatric care instead of some other non-verifiable website)? Or perhaps one could explain why you can’t make an assessment without examining the child or by offering the patient an appointment so you can give the parent a thorough examination as only a truly dedicated pediatrician can?
What if they abuse the medium?
The fear is that once you provide advice once, then parents/patients will come back for more. Which is a legitimate concern. But the answer is quite simple. What does a pediatricians do in the real world when a parent calls excessively looking for “free” medical advice over the phone?
In our office we politely tell the parent that they will need to make an appointment so they can discuss further their concerns with the doctor. Twitter or Facebook is no different. Remember, these SM tools are just communication tools. Nothing more. The rules are no different.
With a proper public response, one is in essence setting the policy for what the doc can and cannot respond without actually having a formal one. Moreover, one is engaging one’s community, providing sound advice; which is, after all what pediatricians do.
Dr. V had a interesting comment along these lines. He acknowledges that fear runs deep in health care. But he stresses that doctors should fear complacency more. The failure of a doctor to share their knowledge represents a unique form of professional negligence.”
Parents looking for information online will find it, whether the pediatrician provides it or not. Why not ensure they find the correct information that is the best interest of their child by giving it directly to them online.