Most state medical licensing boards have received at least one complaint about unprofessional online behavior by physicians, according to a research letter published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Modern Healthcare reports.
In some cases, the behavior has resulted in serious disciplinary action, including the suspension or revocation of a physician's license.
For the study, researchers from the University of California-San Francisco, Yale School of Medicine and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Washington, D.C., surveyed directors from 68 medical and osteopathic licensing boards in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories.
Researchers received responses from 48 of the board directors (Robeznieks, Modern Healthcare, 3/21). The directors provided information about complaints that patients, their families or other physicians filed about doctors' inappropriate online behaviors (Laidman, Medscape Medical News, 3/20).
Types of Inappropriate Behaviors
According to the study, the most common violation of online professionalism involved physicians asking patients out on dates (Tanner, AP/Sacramento Bee, 3/20).
The study found that:
- 69% of boards received complaints about physicians engaging in inappropriate online communication with patients, such as sexual misconduct;
- 63% of boards received complaints about physicians engaging in inappropriate medical practices online, such as prescribing medication without an established clinical relationship; and
- 60% of boards received complaints about physicians misrepresenting their credentials online.
The study found that after receiving complaints about inappropriate online behaviors, 56% of the boards took serious disciplinary action, such as:
- Restricting the physician's license;
- Revoking the physician's license; or
- Requiring the physician to perform community service.
According to the researchers, physicians' violations of professional conduct might be "important online manifestations of serious and common violations offline, including substance abuse, sexual misconduct and abuse of prescription privileges" (Medscape Medical News, 3/20).
The study authors wrote, "Our findings highlight the need to promote physician understanding and self monitoring of online professionalism and to create consensus-driven, broadly disseminated principles to guide physicians toward high-integrity interactions online" (Modern Healthcare, 3/21).