Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Health care professionals, Twitter, and the Abuse of Public Trust

I had a brief Twitter scuffle this past Friday with a fellow MD.

While I'm all for debate, this one left me concerned. Not because I'm unhappy or unsure of the positions I took, but rather because I realized that Twitter's particularly dangerous when wielded by health professionals.

While I've seen discussions in medical journals and medical forums about the risks of Twitter to such things as patient confidentiality, I think there's a much greater risk when Twitter's wielded by health professionals - patient misinformation.

Physicians and other allied health professionals rightly or wrongly are often inherently trusted by the public. Physicians who tweet will likely collect their own patients as followers along with other members of the public who while not directly under their care, will be looking to them as a purveyor of expertly vetted medical information.

But what if the information isn't expertly vetted?

What if the health professional simply retweets press releases or newspaper articles that fit nicely within the confines of their own personal confirmation biases without taking the time to actually review the press' sourced articles for accuracy and authority?

Unfortunately, institutional press releases and lay press reporting is often lacking in critical appraisal and regularly misrepresents outcomes or simply doesn't appreciate methodological, paper-negating flaws.

Yet if retweeted by a health care professional those misrepresentations and flawed papers may be seen by that person's followers/tweeps as factual.

And hence my tweet up above. While the directive won't protect followers from health care professionals who do a cruddy job of critical analysis, I think it's the very least a health professional can do in protecting their tweeps. Not to do so - well I think that's a frank abuse of public trust.

[Strange after story. Unless there's a Twitter glitch, my co-scuffling MD has deleted our conversation from her timeline]

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  1. Roman Korol8:18 am

    This is a capital point and one that goes to the heart of professional integrity! Thanks for carrying the ball on this one!

  2. Thanks for this article - I totally agree. I see too many professionals posting articles or information without reading!

  3. To this point exactly, I am equally distressed when the media,writing on subjects of science, merely passes on the press releases without a critical reading, as in the case of the latest Mayo Clinic study claims that overeating is linked with mild cognitive impairment or memory loss. Makes me think I must be the only one losing my mind! http://dropitandeat.blogspot.com/2012/02/my-high-calorie-intake-could-make-me.html

  4. You make a good point - not something I've thought about a lot - so probably guilty of this in the past. On the other hand, I do mostly share or retweet media articles that present interesting viewpoints, i.e. not necessarily discussing original research papers (e.g. Toronto Mayor goes on a diet and someone writes an interesting commentary on this, or the media take on the Atlanta childhood obesity issue).

    My rationale here is more to alert my 'followers' to what I find of interest - not necessarily because I either agree or disagree with what is being said.

    Obviously, linking to stuff that I totally disagree with is also sometimes informative - often I signal my 'disagreement' or 'scepticism' with a brief exclamation like "ouch" or "really?"

  5. Anonymous1:54 pm

    There is also a growing concern that providers who are being "PAID" to blog or tweet are part of their hospitals systems marketing depts and no better then pharma and medical equipment reps in the past.

    Will they encourage patients to find low cost solutions or consider the new ortho hospital that just opened. Perhaps even fly across the country for a second opinion.

    Docs who are on social media should have a tag on their picture that discloses that they are being paid to market not to be a health care professional. Especially those that spend more time giving talks on social media than on direct patient care.