Facebook and physicians: Not good medicine

Doctors warned to stay off social media to avoid patient privacy conflict

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Beyond hospital walls, a niche industry has emerged to address the desire by physicians to discuss patient cases with colleagues or request information on the latest treatments. Sermo and Doximity are two of the leading providers of online networking sites for physicians.

Doximity
Doximity's physician network on an iPhone.

The sites verify physicians' credentials before allowing them to open accounts and begin sharing information with other doctors, either through postings or secure email.

For example, one recent posting involved a physician who needed to learn how to remove a wire bristle that had become lodged in a patient's throat. The bristle, from a gas grill cleaning brush, had broken off and become lodged in a hamburger the patient had eaten.

"He posted the case because he thought it was rare, but two other doctors had removed wire bristles from patients in the past two months. Now all three are going to write article about how to remove a wire bristle," said Jeff Tangney, CEO of Doximity.

Launched a little more than a year ago, Doximity now has 9% of all U.S. physicians as members, according to Tangney. "We have three times as many physicians on our network as LinkedIn has," he said.

Sites like Doximity allow specialists and hospitals to form social networking groups, and the information posted by members is only shared within a distinct universe of users.

The company generates revenues through physician referrals, including referrals to law firms that pay for expert testimony in court cases and referrals to Wall Street firms seeking physicians' opinions on investments in companies involved in the healthcare industry. For example, a fund manager might be considering an investment in a company that just received FDA approval for a new medical device. A physician familiar with the product would be able to say whether or not the device is useful.

Just as with any curbside consultation, however, the quality of the information physicians receive from colleagues on such sites can be questionable, and there are tricky liability issues to consider as well, said Crotty.

"What if the treatment they suggested was wrong and you chose the wrong one?" he said. "The thing is, when you get a second opinion, the doctor you're getting the opinion from has no clinical context or clinical relationship with that patient.

"I think these networks will be very good for general learning and general advice, but for real collaboration in clinical context, I wouldn't recommend them," Crotty said.

Goldstein has been using Doximity since the site launched nine months ago. He said it has a number of tools that are useful for connecting with other medical professionals. The site's user interface is similar to that of LinkedIn; it has a basic user profile, but it's tailored for physicians, he said.

Goldstein recently posted a question about a lab result that was confusing, and "in real time I got some interesting responses back," he said.

The other physicians offered their own insights and provided references to online resources.

Describing how the site helped expand his professional network, Goldstein said, "That's pretty cool to be able to sit in my physician work room here in Palo Alto and have responses coming in from people as far away as Boston and New York."

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian, or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His email address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

See more by Lucas Mearian on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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