Patients as FaceBook friends?

By Attorney Michael J. Sacopulos and Dr. Erik P. Southard DNP, FNP-BC

Social media

Q: My patient sent me a friend request on Facebook.  I did not respond to
the request. She then sent me a private message on Facebook. I don’t want her
to think I am being rude. How should I respond?

A: Good question. Since the advent of social media, more and more medical
professionals like yourself have been faced with this question.  According to a survey published in 2011 in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, 68 percent of nurses as well as 94 percent of medical students, 79 percent of residents and 42 percent of practicing physicians reported some use of online social networks, nearly all for personal reasons.

Among healthcare professionals, 35 percent said they had received a “friend” request from a patient or family member— and 58 percent of those who had
received those “friend” requests said they always rejected them.

While it may not be necessary to reject your patient, in 2011 The American
Medical Association’s Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs published guidelines
suggesting medical professionals need to “maintain appropriate boundaries of the patient relationship” online and to consider separating professional and personal content online.

The most proactive way to avoid liability is to never friend a patient on Facebook. As hard as this may be, it opens up a whole new can of worms by allowing them into your personal life. From the moment you click accept they now have the capability to pass judgment on you. Their opinions can change how they view you in the your healthcare facility, which in turn could bring matters up during litigation.

A way many healthcare facilities combat this issue is to create a “fan” page. When a patient requests your friendship on Facebook, you simply direct them to your employer’s “fan” page. While a “fan” page is not as personal as connecting via your Facebook account, it does maintain professional boundaries.  Further, it helps avoid issues on electronic communications with patients. These issues trigger federal laws such as the HITECH Act which you want to avoid. One final thought… remember to check if your employer has a social media policy. Social
media policies are becoming increasingly common place and often directly address questions like yours.


Dr. Erik P. Southard DNP, FNP-BC is the President and CEO of Southard & Associates L.L.C. Erik, Director of the Doctor of Nursing Practice Program and Assistant Professor in the Department of Advanced Practice Nursing at Indiana State University, enjoys teaching and serving his Alma mater. He continues to work as a family nurse practitioner treating patients of all ages for acute and chronic health conditions.  He is a proud graduate of Vincennes University, Indiana State University and Johns Hopkins University. He is an avid outdoors-man

and loves spending time with his family.