@amcunningham I see the logic of not being friends on FB, but if a pt. follows you on Twitter, should you block them?#DifferentPlatformThis question came about because I had tweeted a link to some research which had shown that 1/3 of practicising physicians, who responded to a survey (with a 14% response rate) and said they used Facebook , had been issued with a friend request by a patient or their carer. This was much higher than the level reported in more junior doctors and medical students.
— WelshGasDoc (@welsh_gas_doc) February 6, 2012
So should doctors refuse friend requests from patients? I have never had a Facebook request from a patient but if I had I would explain that I keep that account for close friends and family. A Facebook request can just be ignored which is an essentially passive act.
But I wouldn't block a patient from following me on Twitter. My Twitter presence is not orientated towards patients but I don't think that they would find anything shocking or surprising in my tweets. It would give them an insight into what I do when I am not in the practice. I consider that patients, or colleagues or students might read everything that I write here or on Twitter or anywhere else publicly online so I wouldn't worry about that.
A few people did think that patients should be blocked however. We discussed that this wouldn't necessarily stop them accessing the tweets as one only has to look at the profile instead. And blocking someone on Twitter is quite a hostile and aggressive act. I think I would find it hard to explain why I was doing that. One doctor said that he had blocked a young, female patient from his Twitter account because he wanted to set clear boundaries.
Another option, as the BMA guidance on the use of social media suggests, is to consider protecting your Twitter account and only allowing approved followers to see Tweets. In my experience the vast majority of doctors in the UK do have public accounts and I don't know if patients accessing tweets is a factor for those who choose to protect their accounts.
And how would I respond to a patient asking me for information on Twitter? Say they asked me where was the best place to find information about diabetes? Well, I would reply and point them to some good sources of information. And what if they were to ask me about their medical condition? If they were following me I would send them a DM advising that I can't give medical advice on Twitter but to get in contact with me in the surgery. I'd also advise them that their tweets are public and that that they might want to be careful about sharing sensitive information so it might be best to delete them. Normally I wouldn't send a DM to someone who I was not following as they would not be able to reply. But I think that in this case it might be the easiest way to deal with the situation. I wouldn't feel comfortable talking to a patient about a medical problem in 140 chtrs even if they were private messages. Essentially, I would treat a patient no differently to any other person I meet on Twitter. And since many people do not use real names on Twitter, and I have no way of remembering the names of all the patients registered with our practice it would be an impossible task to block all patients anyway.
I wouldn't follow my patients on Twitter. But perhaps I will change my mind about this. Perhaps following people from the area could give me better insights into what it is like living in the area and how I might be a better advocate for the community. Have no doubt however that the digital divide is real. A few weeks ago we were having a #nhssm (NHS social media) discussion on using video services such as Skype with patients when Evan Hilton, the executive director of Gofal, the Welsh mental health charity tweeted about the issue of digital in/exlusion in the South Wales valleys. He followed it up with this statistic:
@buzzumi @amcunningham in context of community based mental health services @gofal_ less than 10% of service users on line at homeOur patients face many challenges (often beyond their control) in staying health or living with illness. We haven't yet figured out how social media can be best used to help them but perhaps there is a case for not putting more blocks in the road. What do you think?
— Ewan Hilton (@EwanHilton) January 18, 2012