Rosoff said the survey further raises the question of whether a doctor should maintain any form of private life online, such as a Facebook page, even if it's just for friends and family. He pointed to a recent case involving one emergency room doctor who posted information about a medical case on Facebook. The activity was reported, the doctor was reprimanded by the state medical board, and she lost her job at the hospital, he said.
He said there are ways patients can watch their steps online, too. Rosoff said those with diseases who feel a sense of desperation are especially vulnerable to medical scams and should be guided by the old advice: "If it looks too good to be true, it probably is." Patients could also check reputable websites, such as that of the U.S. National Cancer Institute, to see if another cancer site is reputable. They can scan their state medical board websites, too, to see if a doctor has been sanctioned or has a record.
"But that bar is pretty high, meaning you have to do something pretty bad, and perhaps repeatedly, to get caught and sanctioned," Rosoff said.
Medical blogger Swanson said patients could take action, too. "If a patient hears about online prescribing outside of a professional relationship, privacy violations with protected health information, or inappropriate behavior on a clinician's part in the online space, it should be reported," she said.
Greysen said the Hippocratic Oath -- the promise a medical student makes at graduation to "First, do no harm" -- should guide doctors in the online world as well as the real world. "We've been trying to hone in on, what are the harms of using this technology?" he said. "What needs to come after this is, how can we use social media to promote health?"
The U.S. National Cancer Institute explains how to evaluate online sources of health information.
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