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MDs warned to be cautious with their Facebook settings

The main inference to be drawn from a recent analysis involving family doctors in the Ottawa region is that a "reassuring" proportion of Canadian FPs do not share details from their Facebook pages with the general public.

However, the study of the 1,000 family physicians active in the Ottawa region did reveal that 10% of these physicians had Facebook profiles that could be viewed by anyone - including their patients.

The study's authors stress that doctors should be cautious when considering how much information they will make available online. "While a minority of physicians have a publicly accessible Facebook profile, those that do are sharing personal information that may expose them to unwanted intrusions into their personal lives and unexpected patient interactions outside of the office. Physicians should be aware of options for making their online information less publicly accessible."

Data for the study, conducted by Dr. Kamila Premji and colleagues from the Department of Family Medicine and the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Ottawa, were collected in 2012 by using information from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario to identify all active FPs in the Ottawa area. The degree to which these physicians made Facebook information available was then collected using a dummy Facebook account, and the researchers found that 102 physicians matched with publicly viewable Facebook profiles. (In 2010, an ePanel survey conducted by the CMA revealed that 51% of Canadian physicians had a Facebook account.)

The researchers concluded that the majority of Ottawa-area FPs are keeping their Facebook profiles confidential, as is recommended by many social media guidelines for physicians. However, they also warned that the 10% of FPs with public profiles that made their photos, relationships and other personal information available - and allowed them to be contacted directly through Facebook - left the doctors "vulnerable to breaches in professionalism and boundaries."

The study, published in the British Journal of Medicine & Medical Research, concluded: "Many users are likely unaware that their information is publicly viewable and that there are steps they can take to make their OSN [online social networking] usage more private and secure."

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