Journal of General Internal Medicine

, Volume 26, Issue 10, pp 1168–1174 | Cite as

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

  • Gabriel T. BossletEmail author
  • Alexia M. Torke
  • Susan E. Hickman
  • Colin L. Terry
  • Paul R. Helft
Original Research



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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


doctor–patient relations computer communication networks professionalism Internet bioethics 



The authors would like to thank the Methodist Health Foundation, the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation, and the IU Health Values Fund for their support and funding of this study. The authors would also like to thank Mrs. Amy Chamness-Douthit for her tireless work in coordinating the survey responses and data.

Conflicts of Interest

None Disclosed.

Supplementary material

11606_2011_1761_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (501 kb)
ESM 1 (PDF 500 kb)


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Copyright information

© Society of General Internal Medicine 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Gabriel T. Bosslet
    • 1
    • 2
    • 6
    Email author
  • Alexia M. Torke
    • 1
    • 4
    • 5
    • 6
  • Susan E. Hickman
    • 1
    • 7
  • Colin L. Terry
    • 8
  • Paul R. Helft
    • 1
    • 3
    • 6
  1. 1.Charles Warren Fairbanks Center for Medical EthicsIndiana University HealthIndianapolisUSA
  2. 2.Division of Pulmonary, Allergy, Critical Care, Occupational and Sleep MedicineIndiana University School MedicineIndianapolisUSA
  3. 3.Division of Hematology/OncologyIndianapolisUSA
  4. 4.Division of General Internal Medicine and GeriatricsIndianapolisUSA
  5. 5.IU Center for Aging ResearchRegenstrief Institute, Inc.IndianapolisUSA
  6. 6.Department of MedicineIndiana University School Of MedicineIndianapolisUSA
  7. 7.Department of Environments for HealthIndiana University School of NursingIndianapolisUSA
  8. 8.Methodist Research InstituteIndiana University HealthIndianapolisUSA

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