Doctors Should Disclose Conflicts of Interest Online

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BALTIMORE—As the use of Twitter and other social media by physicians and patients rises, more and more physicians seem to forget to do what many consider crucial for building doctor-patient trust: disclose potential conflicts of interest. However, physicians are not entirely at fault: prominent medical societies have failed to lay out comprehensive guidelines for physicians on when and how to disclose a conflict of interest when utilizing social media.

In a commentary published online in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, Matthew DeCamp, MD, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine’s Division of General Internal Medicine, argues that some physicians use social media to give advice to patients and the public without revealing drug industry ties or other information that may bias their opinions. Without serious efforts to divulge such information—standard practice when publishing in medical journals and recommended in one-on-one contacts with patients—DeCamp said consumers are left in the dark.

“As physicians and patients increasingly interact online, the standards of appropriate behavior become really unclear," said DeCamp, who also holds a fellowship at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. “In light of norms of disclosure accepted throughout medicine, it’s surprising that major medical guidelines fail to adequately address this issue."

Among the national organizations that have issued social media guidelines are the American Medical Association and the Federation of State Medical Boards.

DeCamp acknowledges that use of social media has the potential to improve patient care and trust by increasing patient access to information, but vigorous online “boundaries" are needed to not only assure privacy and confidentiality, but also to protect patients from misinformation and biased advice.

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