Is it Ethical for Physicians to Monitor Patients' Behavior Online?

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Should physicians use social media to monitor patients' discussions about health and lifestyle for information that might affect treatment outcomes?

George Van Antwerp has posted a very interesting question on his Enabling Healthy Decisions blog: if human resource managers, tax collectors, and other business/government interests are free to monitor social media posts for information-gathering purposes, why couldn’t a doctor do the same?

Like most people, I’ve always assumed that doctors and their staff were too busy to engage in this kind of behavior (although I wouldn’t doubt it is on the agenda at health insurance companies). However, when conversation turns to pay-for-performance and what kinds of metrics should be used for that purpose, the idea that physicians might want to know what their patients are up to becomes more plausible to me. I can also imagine this might be useful in specific scenarios where patient behavior is a huge factor in treatment, such as in severe depression or obesity.

Now, this kind of online sniffing around isn’t mentioned specifically in Deloitte’s recent report regarding the use of social networks in healthcare, but with 60% of physicians and 65% of nurses interested in using social networks for professional purposes, it is easy to see why the interest in connecting with the patient community online is huge.

So, if a healthcare professional follows patients’ tweets, blogs, or checks out Facebook or MySpace accounts for professional purposes, I can’t think of an ethical or legal conflict of interest. Can you?

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