Original Research

Journal of General Internal Medicine

, Volume 26, Issue 10, pp 1168-1174

The Patient–Doctor Relationship and Online Social Networks: Results of a National Survey

  • Gabriel T. BossletAffiliated withCharles Warren Fairbanks Center for Medical Ethics, Indiana University HealthDivision of Pulmonary, Allergy, Critical Care, Occupational and Sleep Medicine, Indiana University School MedicineDepartment of Medicine, Indiana University School Of Medicine Email author 
  • , Alexia M. TorkeAffiliated withCharles Warren Fairbanks Center for Medical Ethics, Indiana University HealthDivision of General Internal Medicine and GeriatricsIU Center for Aging Research, Regenstrief Institute, Inc.Department of Medicine, Indiana University School Of Medicine
  • , Susan E. HickmanAffiliated withCharles Warren Fairbanks Center for Medical Ethics, Indiana University HealthDepartment of Environments for Health, Indiana University School of Nursing
  • , Colin L. TerryAffiliated withMethodist Research Institute, Indiana University Health
  • , Paul R. HelftAffiliated withCharles Warren Fairbanks Center for Medical Ethics, Indiana University HealthDivision of Hematology/OncologyDepartment of Medicine, Indiana University School Of Medicine

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ABSTRACT

BACKGROUND

The use of online social networks (OSNs) among physicians and physicians-in-training, the extent of patient–doctor interactions within OSNs, and attitudes among these groups toward use of OSNs is not well described.

OBJECTIVE

To quantify the use of OSNs, patient interactions within OSNs, and attitudes toward OSNs among medical students (MS), resident physicians (RP), and practicing physicians (PP) in the United States.

DESIGN/SETTING

A random, stratified mail survey was sent to 1004 MS, 1004 RP, and 1004 PP between February and May 2010.

MEASUREMENTS

Percentage of respondents reporting OSN use, the nature and frequency of use; percentage of respondents reporting friend requests by patients or patients’ family members, frequency of these requests, and whether or not they were accepted; attitudes toward physician use of OSNs and online patient interactions.

RESULTS

The overall response rate was 16.0% (19.8% MS, 14.3% RP, 14.1% PP). 93.5% of MS, 79.4% of RP, and 41.6% of PP reported usage of OSNs. PP were more likely to report having visited the profile of a patient or patient’s family member (MS 2.3%, RP 3.9%, PP 15.5%), and were more likely to have received friend requests from patients or their family members (MS 1.2%, RP 7.8%, PP 34.5%). A majority did not think it ethically acceptable to interact with patients within OSNs for either social (68.3%) or patient-care (68.0%) reasons. Almost half of respondents (48.7%) were pessimistic about the potential for OSNs to improve patient–doctor communication, and a majority (79%) expressed concerns about maintaining patient confidentiality.

CONCLUSION

Personal OSN use among physicians and physicians-in-training mirrors that of the general population. Patient–doctor interactions take place within OSNs, and are more typically initiated by patients than by physicians or physicians-in-training. A majority of respondents view these online interactions as ethically problematic.

KEY WORDS

doctor–patient relations computer communication networks professionalism Internet bioethics