This is updated from a post in my old blog dated 10/05/10.
Last week, a patient surprised me by saying, “Doc, ang ganda mo pala sa Facebook!” Translated: Doctor, you look pretty in Facebook! Though she said it as a compliment, I felt uncomfortable on two counts. First, did she mean that I wasn’t pretty in person? 🙂 Ah, vanity! Second, and more importantly, why was she looking me up in Facebook? She must have sensed my discomfort and didn’t say anything further. I was afraid she might ask me directly if we could be Facebook friends. Thankfully, she didn’t! Because I would have said No.
A few months back, I got a PM on Facebook from someone saying she was the daughter of my patient. She was asking me something about the patient’s case. I decided to ignore the message, for two reasons. First, I could not confirm her identity and second, I did not think it wise to discuss such matters on Facebook. Apparently, I’m not the only doctor who has had such encounters. And I cannot agree more with SH Jain who said in Practicing Medicine in the Age of Facebook (N Engl J Med 2009;361:649-651)
“By creating a new environment for individual and group interaction, social-networking sites also create new challenges for those who work in clinical settings.”
In my post on social media policy, I mentioned the best practices outlined in the social media guidelines of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. In this same guideline, a few examples of fictional cases are given, the first of which is exactly this situation – a patient attempts to friend a doctor on Facebook. Best practice 3 refers to protecting patient privacy.
A patient attempts to “friend” an attending physician on Facebook. This is almost always inappropriate, unless the doctor-patient relationship has ended. Even after the doctor-patient relationship has ended, it would be inappropriate to discuss health-related information. (Best Practice 3)
Finally, let me quote from the American Medical Association Policy: Professionalism in the Use of Social Media.
If they interact with patients on the Internet, physicians must maintain appropriate boundaries of the patient-physician relationship in accordance with professional ethical guidelines just, as they would in any other context.
That being said, I would prefer not to be Facebook friends with my patients. Not everyone will agree. In the end, it is a personal decision.