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Physicians Using Social Media Need More Oversight

GW Medicine Research Finds that Greater Accountability for Medical Professionals Using Social Media is Needed

WASHINGTON  — New research, conducted by Katherine Chretien., M.D., F.A.C.P., associate professor of Medicine at the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences, reveals that while social media has the potential to have a positive social impact, there is need for greater accountability and guidelines, as some physicians who are regular users of Twitter are disseminating unethical and unprofessional content. A Research Letter titled, “Physicians on Twitter,” was included in the Feb. 9 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association.

“This research helped us to identify how physicians are using social media and has helped us gauge whether or not there is need for greater accountability for physicians who use social media,” said Dr. Chretien. “While the majority of tweets were potentially helpful, the ethical breaches and unprofessional content raised a red flag.”

The study, approved by the Washington DC VA Medical Center, was initiated to describe the characteristics of self-identified physicians on Twitter and how they use Twitter, with a specific focus on professionalism. The researchers examined 5156 tweets from 260 self-identified physicians with 500 or more followers between May 1 and May 31, 2010. They found that three percent of the tweets were categorized as “unprofessional,” meaning that they included profanity, potential patient privacy violations, sexually explicit material, or discriminatory statements. In addition, one percent of the tweets were marked “other unprofessional,” which included unsupported claims about a product they were selling on their Web site or repeated promotions of specific health products. Ten of these statements about medical therapies countered existing medical knowledge or guidelines, potentially leading to patient harm.

To read the Research Letter in the February 9, 2011 Journal of the American Medical Association, go to: http://jama.ama-assn.org/content/305/6/566.2.full