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Doctors' Missteps Online Can Lead To Disciplinary Action

Doc, don't be caught red-faced online!
Doc, don't be caught red-faced online!

Can your doctor really say that online?

Well, doctors can and do say all kinds of derogatory things about patients online. On the other hand, some doctors take another tack and use their computers and smartphones to ask patients out. And then there are the doctors who go online to prescribe medicines for patients they've never seen.

A majority of state medical boards, the groups that license and discipline doctors, have received reports of doctor behaving badly online, according to a nationwide survey. Most often the boards learn about the problems from patients or their families.

The results are summarized in a letter in the latest issue of JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Most doctors aren't running into trouble online. And there's no sense of what the rate is for problems because the survey asked if the boards had ever been told about such issues.

Still, some of the problems were serious and led to disciplinary action. All told 56 percent of the boards had restricted, suspended or revoked at least one doctor's license at some point for bad behavior online.

"Professionalism is a core competency required for maintenance of licensure and specialty recertification," the authors write. "Regulators and physicians should therefore address emerging online practices."

It's the latest look at how doctors and medical students misbehave. Some of the same researchers previously documented how some doctors have gone too far on Twitter.

And some of these online mistakes start early, as some of the researchers found in a separate study two years ago that looked at the unprofessional things some medical students were putting on their Facebook pages and other places on the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Hensley edits stories about health, biomedical research and pharmaceuticals for NPR's Science desk. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he has led the desk's reporting on the development of vaccines against the coronavirus.