Doctors are uncertain of their ethical and legal obligations when communicating with patients online. Professional guidelines for patient-doctor interaction online have been written with limited quantitative data about doctors’ current usage and attitudes toward the medium. Further research into these trends will help to inform more focused policy and guidelines for doctors communicating with patients online.
The intent of the study was to provide the first national profile of Australian doctors’ attitudes toward and use of online social media.
The study involved a quantitative, cross-sectional online survey of Australian doctors using a random sample from a large representative database.
Of the 1500 doctors approached, 187 participated (12.47%). Most participants used social media privately, with only one-quarter not using any social media websites at all (48/187, 25.7%). One in five participants (30/155, 19.4%) had received a « friend request » from a patient. There was limited use of online communication in clinical practice: only 30.5% (57/187) had communicated with a patient through email and fewer than half (89/185, 48.1%) could offer their patients electronic forms of information if that were the patients’ preference. Three in five participants (110/181, 60.8%) reported not being uncomfortable about interacting with patients who had accessed personal information about them online, prior to the consultation. Most of the participants (119/181, 65.8%) were hesitant to immerse themselves more fully in social media and online communication due to worries about public access and legal concerns.
Doctors have different practices and views regarding whether or how to communicate appropriately with patients on the Internet, despite online and social media becoming an increasingly common feature of clinical practice. Additional training would assist doctors in protecting their personal information online, integrating online communication in patient care, and guidance on the best approach in ethically difficult online situations.