Docs lack guidance for disclosing conflicts of interest on social media

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Lack of guidance for physicians on disclosing conflicts of interest on social media sites such as Twitter is "an unacceptably gray area," Johns Hopkins postdoctoral fellow Matthew DeCamp writes in a commentary recently published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

"As physicians and patients increasingly interact online, the standards of appropriate behavior become really unclear," says DeCamp, a fellow in the School of Medicine's Division of General Internal Medicine. "In light of norms of disclosure accepted throughout medicine, it's surprising that major medical guidelines fail to adequately address this issue."

Although the American Medical Association and the Federation of State Medical Boards both have issued social media guidelines, other prominent medical societies have failed to offer comprehensive guidance on how and when physicians should disclose a conflict of interest when using social media, according to a Johns Hopkins announcement.

DeCamp notes that such a lack of guidelines means that both patients and medical students could be left in the dark about a physician's ties to a drug maker, a situation that could color the latter's approach to treatment throughout their careers.

One solution he proposes are electronic tags that follow physician tweets even as they're retweeted. At the very least, DeCamp says, disclosures should be in a physician's online profile.

Healthcare tweets have grown 51 percent in 2012, Twitter's Melissa Barnes said last month at the Health 2.0 conference in San Francisco, though opinions differ on appropriate use--if there is one--of the medium. San Francisco-based WCG, an independent strategic communications firm, has created a database of nearly 1,400 U.S. doctors on Twitter to study how physicians use the platform.

A study published in February 2011 in the Journal of the American Medical Association found unprofessional content--including profanity, potential patient privacy violations, sexually explicit material and, in a few cases, discriminatory statements--in 3 percent of more than 5,100 physician tweets reviewed.

To learn more:
- read the commentary
- see the AMA's social media guidelines
- here are the FSMB guidelines
- here's the university announcement

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