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Facebook “threat to patient relations”

20 December 2010

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Doctors could be threatening their confidential relationship with patients by using Facebook, experts have said.

A survey of medics in France has revealed that most of the 73% with a profile on the social networking site displayed enough personal information to be identified.

Information given out on the site included information on current job titles, which was displayed by 55%, and details of university medical training, provided by 59%.

Many of the 400 trainee doctors who responded to the survey had given out their real name and date of birth, and 91% had put up a photo of themselves.

While 61% thought they had changed their privacy settings to prevent people seeing most of their details, 17% were unsure and those who had joined Facebook less than a year ago were less likely to limit access to their profile.

Most doctors (85%) said they would automatically refuse a friend request from a patient, but one in seven (15%) said they would decide on a case by case basis.

This might be because they feel an affinity with them or fear embarrassing or losing the patient if they declined.

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Of those surveyed, from Rouen University Hospital in France, only 6% had received a Facebook request from a patient, with only four of them accepting it.

But the authors, writing in the Journal of Medical Ethics, said such requests will become more common.

Reasons given for declining included the need to keep a professional distance or suspicion that the patient was interested in a romantic relationship. But such a relationship being unethical came bottom of the list of reasons.

The authors said: “This new interaction (whether it is romantic or not) results in an ethically problematic situation because it is unrelated to direct patient care.

“Moreover public availability of information on a doctor’s private life may threaten the mutual confidence between doctor and patient if the patient accesses information not intended for them.”

Copyright © Press Association 2010

Journal of Medical Ethics