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Sunday January 16, 2011

The doctor is in ... to social media

Some doctors use Facebook, Twitter to raise profile; SMA looking into issue.

SINGAPORE: The tweet on the aesthetic chain’s Twitter page reads: “Denise Keller looking gorgeous at a photo shoot after quick skin fixes at The Sloane Clinic.” It comes with a link to a photograph of the well-known Singaporean model-presenter.

On Facebook, the clinic’s public page has pictures of its doctors in stylish studio shots, and staff who had gone for its beauty makeovers.

Others in the medical field have also jumped onto the social-media bandwagon. Dr H.C. Chang of HC Chang Orthopaedic Surgery has a website, his own channel on YouTube and a presence on Facebook, Twitter and Google Buzz.

Orthopaedic surgeon Kevin Yip also has a website and is on Facebook, Twitter and photo-sharing site Flickr.

The Singapore Medical Association (SMA) is looking into the situation to ensure that restrictions governing how medical professionals can list their services are not breached, and that patients are not misled.

Guidelines from the Singapore Medical Council (SMC) allow doctors to list their services in professional and healthcare institution listings such as hospital and telephone directories. But they cannot use the general commercial media such as newspapers, magazines, public displays or exhibits, radio and television.

Healthcare institutions licensed under the Private Hospitals and Medical Clinics Act can use the Internet to publicise their services, so long as it is not done in a manner amounting to soliciting.

In the week past, it was reported that the SMA had submitted a list of recommendations to the SMC on proposed changes to the SMC’s Ethical Code and Ethical Guidelines, the first such review by the SMA in 10 years.

The SMA represents 5,300 doctors in Singapore while the SMC, a statutory board under the Ministry of Health (MOH), registers medical practitioners and regulates professional conduct and ethics.

Among the recommendations, published in SMA’s November newsletter, was one asking the MOH and SMC to “harmonise” the various publicity and advertising guidelines.

And “where there are contradictions, the stricter requirement should prevail”. New forms of advertising, such as search-engine marketing and social media, like Facebook and Twitter, should also be “made accounted for”.

An SMA spokesman told The Straits Times: “Information provided must not exploit patients’ vulnerability, ill-founded fear for their future health or lack of medical knowledge.”

The Sloane Clinic could not be reached to answer queries last week. Its Facebook page was on public mode till Thursday, when access became restricted and by request. On Friday, its spokesman responded, saying Facebook was a way for staff and patients to communicate.

Dr Chang said he uses social media primarily to educate patients, noting that they often ask him about the same problems. The pictures and videos on his website help them understand complicated medical terms, he added.

“If patients don’t understand their condition, it’s hard to get them to comply with treatment and manage expectations,” he said.

His YouTube videos show him explaining common orthopaedic ailments, prevention methods and surgical procedures he has performed. He said he has no problems with SMA’s recommendations as he applies all existing publicity guidelines in his use of new media.

Dr Steven Tucker, medical director of Pacific Cancer Centre, who tweets regularly on topics such as health and wellness, feels the recommendations are timely. But he thinks there are other elements of social media that SMA should look into, such as how doctors should maintain a boundary between their personal and professional lives.

“A doctor may post a tweet about being tired after a day’s shift. If a patient happens to see that tweet, and it so happens that something goes wrong during a procedure for that patient, will the patient associate it with the tweet?” asked Dr Tucker, who has a website that focuses on lifestyle issues.

“Doctors, especially the younger and more tech-savvy ones, must be cognisant of the implications of what they post online.”

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