"It's happened to me, and it's happened to many of my colleagues [that] when a patient who either knows our e-mail address or finds a way to obtain it, will just contact us out of the blue," Fleming said.
"It may be someone who starts asking us pointed questions regarding their health or the health of a loved one, and it really evolves very quickly into important private communication. And when you don't have a relationship with this patient, just like you bump into someone on the street and have a casual conversation at a cocktail party, you have to be very careful in terms of the kind of information we provide them.
"To give advice in an incomplete fashion, in an unprotected way, places us at ethical and professional risk."
Chaudhry said the complex issues caught the federation's attention after a paper published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association. That researchreporting on a survey that found "92% of state medical boards responding said they had at least one case of an online professionalism violation that led to board actions like licensure revocation," Chaudhry said.
The federation's committee members were "surprised," he said, because they expected it would be young physicians and medical students who might "get into trouble" in this area because social media for them "is so ubiquitous… they've been using the Internet and smart phones since they were young… [We felt] surely practicing physicians who've worked hard to earn that license, they would surely be a little bit more careful in taking risks."
But, he said, the numbers "didn't bear that out." The reports indicate that doctors getting into ethical trouble with postings on social media "crossed all age groups and all demographics, which prompted us to work with the ACP to get this information out.
"This paper is valuable to every physician in this country."