A study led by Washington DC VA Medical Center (DCVAMC) physician, Katherine Chretien, MD indicates today’s physicians need greater accountability and more guidelines concerning their use of Twitter. Twitter is a free social networking site in which users post short messages called “tweets”. The study was published in the Journal of American Medicine (Feb. 9, 2011 – vol. 305, No. 6).
The Physicians on Twitter study, set out to describe how self-identified physicians use Twitter with a specific focus on professionalism. Dr. Chretien, and two fellow investigators identified 260 self-identified physicians and analyzed the physicians’ most recent 20 tweets, collected between May 1 and May 31 for a total of 5,156 messages
Investigators defined a coding guide to categorize the tweets and found 49% (2,453) were health or medical related, 21% (1082) were personal communications, 14% (703) were retweets (another user’s tweets are rebroadcast), and 12% (634) were self-promotional.
Investigators discovered one hundred forty-four tweets (3%) that they categorized as unprofessional and 0.7% represented potential patient privacy violations, 0.6% contained profanity, and 0.3% included sexually explicit material, while 0.1% included discriminatory statements. They found twelve tweets promoting specific health products the physicians were selling (representing potential conflicts of interest) and 10 were statements about medical treatments not supported by existing medical knowledge, potentially leading to patient harm.
The study suggests that physicians need more education and accountability to ensure their use of social media sites such as Twitter does not impact ethical and professional standards of the practice of medicine.
Dr. Chretien previously published a study about unprofessional online content by medical students (JAMA, September 23/30, 2009 – vol.302, No. 12).