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]