Doctors and Social Media: Personal vs. Professional Online Content

By Barbara Ficarra, RN, BSN, MPA

Doctor on Computer ID-10035343

The topic of health care social media continues here on Healthin30, and legal expert, David Harlow, Esq, Health Care Attorney and Consultant at The Harlow Group, LLC in Boston, answers a series of questions focusing on the legal aspects of physicians engaging in social media.

Q: Barbara – In order to maintain professional boundaries, the American Medical Association recommends a separation between personal and professional content online. If inappropriate content is posted to a physician’s personal online platform, can the physician still be investigated by the state medical boards?

A: David Harlow, Esq. – If the inappropriate material can be tied back to the clinician (and of course it can be, even if it’s posted under a pseudonym or anonymously), then it may be grounds for action. The fact that it’s posted on a personal platform is not dispositive. Even if there is no explicit rule to that effect, physicians should know that the regulators take this very seriously, and will not let the absence of a specific rule stand in the way of investigation and action. For example, the board in Massachusetts, my home state, gives itself the flexibility to establish new rules in the course of a misconduct hearing; and other states likely do this as well. Some of the explicit rules are already so broad — grounds for investigation and sanctions include “engaging in conduct which has the capacity to deceive or defraud” — that extending grounds for sanctions to include inappropriate communication with individual patients, or the public at large, is not that great a stretch.

The Federation of State Medical Boards recently issued model social media policies. In these model guidelines, the Federation quoted its own guidelines on internet use, issued just over a decade ago, which highlighted the three central ethical standards applicable to internet use, generally, and to social media, in particular: candor, privacy and integrity.  See:

Doctors and Social Media – Two Photos Which Could Prompt State Boards to Investigate

State Medical Boards Addresses Inappropriate Online Physician Behaviors

Doctors and Social Media: What are the appropriate boundaries for the doctor/patient relationship?

American Medical Association–Professionalism in the Use of Social Media


A series of posts will continue  here on Healthin30 on the legal aspects of social media, with legal expert, David Harlow, Esq.  Stay tuned for more on health care social media with David Harlow, Esq.

Your turn

What are your thoughts on health care social media.  Do you think doctors should be online on Facebook and Twitter?  Are you a doctor engaging in social media?  Do you friend your patients?  Do you post personal content?  Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

As always, thank you for your valuable time.

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