Social Media Consultation

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Minimizing the unique risks and challenges for physicians

CPSO last explored the topic of physicians and social media use in 2013, when we first developed and approved our statement on appropriate use of social media by physicians. Since then, a lot has changed and the College is revisiting its approach with a new draft Social Media policy that sets out specific expectations for physicians using social media. 

Undoubtedly, social media presents important opportunities for physicians to enhance patient care, medical education, and advocacy, among other things. However, the use of highly accessible, informal and fast-paced social media platforms presents unique risks and challenges for physicians to navigate, and raises questions about how physicians can uphold their professional obligations when engaging online.

Last summer, we consulted on the current statement and heard your feedback. We drafted the new policy to address key issues raised, including the need to bring more clarity to the concepts of professionalism and unprofessionalism when using social media. The draft policy is now out for consultation, and we want to know what you think and whether we’ve provided helpful guidance for physicians in this space.

Many of the expectations in the draft policy mirror existing obligations found in other CPSO policies, such as Boundary Violations, Physician Behaviour in the Professional Environment and Advertising, but place them in the social media context. Online, the results of a physician’s actions might be different than if they had occurred offline — for example, something posted by a physician can be screen captured and shared more widely, garnering more attention than intended. The draft policy and companion Advice to the Profession document aim to provide guidance to physicians on how to minimize risks, while using social media responsibly.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the important role physicians can play in sharing information, as well as the dangers of physicians spreading misinformation. (Please read our article about “Infodemics.”) Recognizing the need to tackle this issue, the draft policy includes new requirements around disseminating general health information. The draft requires physicians only share evidence-based information and not misrepresent their qualifications when making specific medical, scientific or clinical claims.

“As members of the medical profession, physicians are held to a professional standard, even when engaging on social media. It is important to keep in mind the impact of your statements has the potential to be very influential given the nature of social media and your status as a physician,” said Dr. Janet van Vlymen, an anesthesiologist in Kingston and a member of the Policy Review Working Group. 

Dr. van Vlymen says that while the policy aims to set parameters for appropriate obligations in this context, in no way should the development of the policy be perceived as the College attempting to inhibit physicians from using social media. “We all recognize it as a very useful and effective tool for communication,” she said.   

In keeping with CPSO’s commitment to bring equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) into our policies, the draft policy also sets expectations related to discrimination. 

“As physicians, a key part of our professional role is advocacy, particularly for patients and colleagues from groups that have been consistently pushed to the margins,” said Dr. Saroo Sharda, the CPSO’s Lead on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and a Medical Advisor. 

“The aim of this policy is not to silence important advocacy or shut down healthy debate occurring online, but rather to encourage respectful dialogue that is grounded in cultural humility and safety. Discrimination, whether in the form of overt discrimination or microaggressions, can have harmful effects on others and is recognized by the policy as unprofessional behaviour,” she said.   

6 Things to Know

The draft policy:

  • Acknowledges the importance of physician advocacy, while setting an expectation that activities be done respectfully and professionally;
  • Requires physicians only share evidence-based information, be aware of the limits of their knowledge and expertise, and not misrepresent their qualifications when making specific medical, scientific or clinical claims;
  • Indicates that communicating and/or behaving on social media in a manner that involves discrimination can constitute unprofessional behaviour;
  • Requires physicians be mindful of the risks of providing clinical advice on social media;
  • Takes a principled approach towards maintaining appropriate boundaries on social media with patients and medical learners; and 
  • Sets requirements to de-identify information, and/or obtain and document i.e document express and valid consent when posting information online relating to a patient.