TORONTO — Social media has become an avenue for some people suffering for mental illnesses to make posts about their conditions and feelings, as well as search for information. But an ethical dilemma has arisen as some mental health clinicians decide to check out a patient’s personal page (and vice versa) on a social media outlet in order to find out more about them, and see if the posts provide any behavioral predictors.
Stephanie Pope, MD, a psychiatrist at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland, decided to survey psychiatrists and psychologists on how they use social media, as well as investigate institutional guidelines on social media usage by physicians.
In her study, presented at a poster session at the American Psychiatric Association Annual Meeting, Pope found that there were cases where a clinician that researched a patient on social media helped to prevent injury. But at the same time, she discovered that institutional guidelines were severely lacking when it comes to a clinician’s social media presence.
In an interview with Psychiatry Advisor prior to the meeting, Pope said that social media has helped to blur the line between a patient/doctor relationship, necessitating boundaries between clinicians and patients in how they may interact on social media.
“I think everybody would agree that psychiatrists and psychologists should not be social media friends” she said. “I do believe there [should be guidelines] about [a clinician] being aware of their own professional and personal presence.”
A potential problem for clinicians is that some patients may seek out their profiles on social media. A surprisingly high number of clinicians surveyed with a social media presence did not keep their profiles private, she said.
In addition, Pope noted that many clinicians were not aware of many social media sites, especially ones that were the most frequently places for suicidal ideation postings.
“I believe that psychiatrists should be proficient in social media….and know some of the language and ways patients are using social media,” she added.
Patients posting on social media about their condition can actually benefit them. It not only provides a venue for support, but many outlets provide information on their condition and care options. About 60% of patients seek support, knowledge and information about their own health using social media platforms.
In addition, Pope’s survey found instances where a posting lead to higher levels of care, such as an emergency room visit or an outpatient appointment.
Pope S. Social Media and Psychiatry. Poster P7-016. APA 2015. May 16-20, 2015; Toronto, Canada.