What's Right and Wrong for Doctors on Social Media

Amanda Loudin

October 03, 2023

She went by the name "Dr. Roxy" on social media and became something of a sensation on TikTok, where she livestreamed her patients' operations. Ultimately, however, plastic surgeon Dr Katharine Roxanne Grawe lost her medical license based partly on her "life-altering, reckless treatment," heightened by her social media fame. In July, the Ohio state medical board permanently revoked Grawe's license after twice reprimanding her for her failure to meet the standard of care. The board also determined that, by livestreaming procedures, Grawe placed her patients in danger of immediate and serious harm.

Although most doctors don't use social media to the degree that Grawe did, using the various platforms — from X (formerly Twitter) to Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok — can be a slippery slope. Medscape's Physician Behavior Report 2023 revealed that doctors have seen their share of unprofessional or offensive social media use from their peers. Nearly 7 in 10 said it is unethical for a doctor to act rudely, offensively, or unprofessionally on social media, even if their medical practice isn't mentioned. As one physician put it: "Professional is not a 9-to-5 descriptor."

In today's world, social media use is almost a given. Doctors must tread cautiously when they approach it — maybe even more so. "There's still a stigma attached," said Liudmila Schafer, MD, an oncologist with The Doctor Connect, a career consulting firm. "Physicians face a tougher challenge due to societal expectations of perfection, with greater consequences for mistakes. We're under constant 'observation' from peers, employers, and patients."

Beverly Hills plastic surgeon Jay Calvert, MD, says he holds firm boundaries with how he uses social media. "I do comedy on the side, but it's not acceptable for me as a doctor to share that on social media," he said. "People want doctors who are professional, and I'm always concerned about how I present myself."

Calvert said it is fairly easy to spot doctors who cross the line with social media. "You have to hold yourself back when posting. Doing things like dancing in the OR are out of whack with the profession."

According to Schafer, a definite line to avoid crossing is offering medical advice or guidance on social media. "You also can't discuss confidential practice details, respond to unfamiliar contacts, or discuss institutional policies without permission," she said. "It's important to add disclaimers if a personal scientific opinion is shared without reference [or] research or with unchecked sources."

Navigating the Many Social Media Sites

Each social media platform has its pros and cons. Doctors need to determine why to use them and what the payback of each might be. Schafer uses multiple sites, including LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, X, Threads, YouTube, and, to a lesser degree, Clubhouse. How and what she posts on each varies. "I use them almost 95% professionally," she said. "It's challenging to meet and engage in person, so that is where social media helps."

Stephen Pribut, MD, a Washington, DC–based podiatrist, likes to use X as an information source. He follows pretty simple rules when it comes to what he tweets and shares on various sites: "I stay away from politics and religion," he commented. "I also avoid controversial topics online, such as vaccines."

Joseph Daibes, who specializes in cardiovascular medicine at New Jersey Heart and Vein, says he has changed how he uses social media. "Initially, I was a passive consumer, but as I recognized the importance of accurate medical information online, I became more active in weighing in responsibly, occasionally sharing studies, debunking myths, and engaging in meaningful conversations," he said. "Social media can get dangerous, so we have a duty to use it responsibly, and I cannot stress that enough."

For plastic surgeons like Calvert, the visual platforms like Instagram can prove invaluable for marketing purposes. "I've been using Instagram since 2012, and it's been my most positive experience," he said. "I don't generate business from it, but I use it to back up my qualifications as a surgeon."

Potential patients like to scroll through posts by plastic surgeons to learn what their finished product looks like, Calvert said. In many cases, plastic surgeons hire social media experts to cultivate their content. "I've hired and fired social media managers over the years, ultimately deciding I should develop my own content," he said. "I want people to see the same doctor on social media that they will see in the office. I like an authentic presentation, not glitzy."

Social Media Gone Wrong

Calvert said that in the world of plastic surgery, some doctors use social media to present "before and after" compilations that in his opinion aren't necessarily fully authentic, and this rubs him wrong. "There's a bit of 'cheating' in some of these posts, using filters, making the 'befores' particularly bad, and other tricks," he said.

Daibes has also seen his share of social media misuse: "Red flags include oversharing personal indulgences, engaging in online spats, or making unfounded medical claims," he said. "It's essential to remember our role as educators and advocates, and to present ourselves in a way that upholds the dignity of our profession."

At the end of the day, social media can have positive uses for physicians, and it is clearly here to stay. The onus for responsible use ultimately falls to the physicians using it.

Daibes emphasizes the fact that a doctor's words carry weight — perhaps more so than those of other professionals. "The added scrutiny is good because it keeps us accountable; it's crucial that our information is accurate," he said. "The downside is that the scrutiny can be stifling at times and lead to self-censorship, even on nonmedical matters."

Physicians have suggested these eight guidelines for doctors to follow when using social media:

  1. Remember that you represent your profession, even if posting on personal accounts.

  2. Never post from the operating room, the emergency department, or any sort of medical space.

  3. If you're employed, before you post, check with your employer to see whether they have any rules or guidance surrounding social media.

  4. Never use social media to badmouth colleagues, hospitals, or other healthcare organizations.

  5. Never use social media to dispense medical advice.

  6. Steer clear of the obvious hot-button issues, like religion and politics.

  7. Always protect patient privacy when posting.

  8. Be careful with how and whom you engage on social media.

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