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How Much Sharing Is Too Much When It Comes To Physicians On Twitter?

Fairly or unfairly, doctors are usually held to a higher moral standard than most people – and that applies to tweeting doctors as well. So when a doc bears all on Twitter about a patient’s embarrassing condition, you have to wonder whether it’s just a person letting off some steam after work, or an unethical move from a professional in a sensitive work environment.

33charts.com, a social media blog written by an MD, found an incident of a doctor tweeting about her patients. This in itself is a grey area for doctors engaging in social media, and laws are working to catch up to how people in this profession use social media. However, this particular issue isn’t about breaking the law so much as (possibly) being unethical in your tweeting of the day’s medical cases.

The 33charts.com blog picked up on tweets from @mommy_doctor, an anonymous tweeting doctor who can, judging from the tweets I’ve read, go into some detail about her patients – but she is careful to change patient details to protect their privacy, according to her bio. The particular instance that caused an uproar among the tweeting doctor community involved a rather embarrassing medical situation for a patient, and what some perceived to be callous and unprofessional words from @mommy_doctor (you’ve got to read up from the bottom to get the story):


I had to dig pretty deep into the comments and Wikipedia to get what the problem was here, but I can see how doctors and patients might see this as a breach of ethics. @mommy_doctor first tweeted about a very embarrassing medical problem (Google priapism if you don’t know what it is), and then made light of it with a few of her followers.

Now, if you’re in the mood for a really great back-and-forth, read the comments over at 33charts.com. Many agree with the site’s author, Bryan Vartabedian (@doctor_v) that @mommy_doctor disclosed too much information too casually about this patient, and that even under her rule of “changing patient’s details” someone at the hospital or the patient’s family would recognize who he was. Others disagree and see @mommy_doctor as just a busy person letting off some steam about her days at work.

Some of the issue has to do with @mommy_doctor’s anonymity. She is protecting herself, but the details she divulges on Twitter, even when changed slightly, could identify her or her patients to someone familiar with the situation. There is also the fact that the HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) has very specific guidelines about what is permissible for doctors to divulge online, and @mommy_doctor is walking a pretty thin line.

In fairness, @mommy_doctor apologized and conceded that she had perhaps given too much detail about this particular patient, after the riot on 33charts.com made its way back around to Twitter.

So the question remains: was this an over-share? Was the patient’s privacy breached? Or does @mommy_doctor have the right to talk about her days at work on Twitter (after all, she did keep things anonymous)?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on doctors tweeting about patients in the comments below, or on Twitter (@alltwtr).

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