Background: The use of online social networks (OSNs) among physicians and physicians-in-training, the extent of patient-doctor interactions within OSNs, and attitudes among these groups toward use of OSNs is not well described.
Objective: To quantify the use of OSNs, patient interactions within OSNs, and attitudes toward OSNs among medical students (MS), resident physicians (RP), and practicing physicians (PP) in the United States.
Design/setting: A random, stratified mail survey was sent to 1004 MS, 1004 RP, and 1004 PP between February and May 2010.
Measurements: Percentage of respondents reporting OSN use, the nature and frequency of use; percentage of respondents reporting friend requests by patients or patients' family members, frequency of these requests, and whether or not they were accepted; attitudes toward physician use of OSNs and online patient interactions.
Results: The overall response rate was 16.0% (19.8% MS, 14.3% RP, 14.1% PP). 93.5% of MS, 79.4% of RP, and 41.6% of PP reported usage of OSNs. PP were more likely to report having visited the profile of a patient or patient's family member (MS 2.3%, RP 3.9%, PP 15.5%), and were more likely to have received friend requests from patients or their family members (MS 1.2%, RP 7.8%, PP 34.5%). A majority did not think it ethically acceptable to interact with patients within OSNs for either social (68.3%) or patient-care (68.0%) reasons. Almost half of respondents (48.7%) were pessimistic about the potential for OSNs to improve patient-doctor communication, and a majority (79%) expressed concerns about maintaining patient confidentiality.
Conclusion: Personal OSN use among physicians and physicians-in-training mirrors that of the general population. Patient-doctor interactions take place within OSNs, and are more typically initiated by patients than by physicians or physicians-in-training. A majority of respondents view these online interactions as ethically problematic.