Three out of four young healthcare professionals use Facebook and more than half connect to the social networking site on a daily basis, according to a new survey, but only 61% restricted access to their profile to protect private information from the public eye.

Making such information freely available “may threaten the mutual confidence between doctor and patient if the patient accesses information not intended for them to see,” Ghassan Moubarak, MD, of the Hôpital Lariboisière in Paris, and colleagues warned in a study published online Dec. 15 in the Journal of Medical Ethics.

Seventy-three percent of residents and fellows that participated in the survey (n=202) at a hospital in Rouen, France, reported having a Facebook account. When asked if they would accept a friend request from a patient, the majority said no (85%), but others indicated that their decision would depend on certain factors (15%).

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Factors that could sway a health care professional to accept a friend request from a patient included: having an affinity for the patient (n=65; 35%), fear of embarrassing the patient (n=11; 6%), fear of losing the patient’s confidence (n=9; 5%) and fear of losing the patient all together (n=1; 1%).

Fortunately, such friend requests have been uncommon, with only eight participants having encountering patient friend requests (four accepted).

“Careful reflection is needed to define better the implications of electronic communication media on the traditional role of doctors and on the new aspects of medical professionalism,” the researchers wrote.

They made several recommendations or medical professionals with personal Facebook accounts:

  • Do not engage in any online patient interaction unless it pertains exclusively to direct patient care.
  • Be aware that online photos and comments may be easily misinterpreted and may misrepresent real-life behavior.
  • Exercise caution and restraint when choosing material to display online as the effect of making private information public on a professional practice is unpredictable.
  • Read and regularly monitor Facebook’s privacy settings and customize profile accordingly. 

The researchers advise medical professionals to “keep a distance from the patient and to protect one’s personal information and photos.”