Physicians Fail to Disclose Conflicts of Interest

Photo: Doctor on computer

Use of social media has the potential to
improve patient care and trust by
increasing patient access to information;
© panthermedia.net/Ioana Davies

However, physicians are not entirely at fault: prominent medical societies have failed to lay out comprehensive guidelines for physicians on when and how to disclose a conflict of interest when utilizing social media.

In a commentary Doctor Matthew DeCamp of the Johns Hopkins University, argues that some physicians use social media to give advice to patients and the public without revealing drug industry ties or other information that may bias their opinions. Without serious efforts to divulge such information — standard practice when publishing in medical journals and recommended in one-on-one contacts with patients — DeCamp says consumers are left in the dark.

"As physicians and patients increasingly interact online, the standards of appropriate behavior become really unclear," says DeCamp. "In light of norms of disclosure accepted throughout medicine, it's surprising that major medical guidelines fail to adequately address this issue."

Among the national organizations that have issued social media guidelines are the American Medical Association and the Federation of State Medical Boards.

DeCamp acknowledges that use of social media has the potential to improve patient care and trust by increasing patient access to information, but vigorous online "boundaries" are needed to not only assure privacy and confidentiality, but also to protect patients from misinformation and biased advice.

In an office setting, for example, when doctors prescribe a blood pressure medication, professional guidelines say they are ethically bound to tell patients if they have any financial relationship — such as receipt of consulting fees — with the company that manufactures the drug. Guidelines also call for disclosure when they publish studies about blood pressure medication, and medical journals require them to fill out a detailed disclosure form. But online, it's "an unacceptably gray area," DeCamp says.

One reason may be difficulty in determining just how to disclose within the constraints of the online world, DeCamp notes. The popular social media tool Twitter, for example, allows each entry to be just 140 characters long. But a generic disclosure — "The author has no conflict of interest to report related to this tweet" — has 70, leaving little room to discuss the research itself.

MEDICA.de; Source: Johns Hopkins University