Can patient confidentiality be breached online?

doctor online

A leading journal has revealed that medics posting messages on networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter are breaching patient confidentiality.

Research in the Journal of the American Medical Association found examples of web gossip by trainee doctors sharing private patient stories and details. Over half of 78 US medical schools studied had reported cases of students posting unprofessional content online. One in 10 of these contained frank violations of patient confidentiality.

Most were blogs, including one on Facebook, containing enough clinical detail that patients could potentially be identified. Many postings included profanity and discriminatory language. While most incidents resulted in informal warnings, some were deemed serious enough to lead to dismissal from medical school.

But few of the medical schools had policies that covered online social networking and blogging.

Obviously this is an area that needs to be addressed as patient confidentiality is paramount and medical studetns and doctors obviously need to be very careful about information they post on line.

The investigators, led by Dr Katherine Chretien of the Washington DC VA Medical Center, said medical students may not be aware of how online posting can reflect negatively on medical professionalism or jeopardise their careers.

Similarly, patient confidentiality breaches may be unintentional. “Sharing patient stories that are de-identified and respectful, as health professionals might do on personal blogs, can encourage reflection, empathy and understanding. “However, content may risk violation of patient privacy, even without using names or other identifiers,” they warned.

Also, the line separating freedom of speech and inappropriate postings can be unclear – for example, derisive comments about a student’s institution or profession might not be considered unprofessional by some, they said. Dr Chretien’s team say medical students should be taught as part of their training about the risks associated with making postings on the Internet.

As a matter of course, students should be shown how to elect privacy settings on social networking sites and should be told to perform periodic Web searches of their own name to vet listed online content.

Story from BBC NEWS