Saturday, January 11, 2014

Gagging Doctors on Social media.

Gagging Doctors on Social media.

I read somewhere recently that the British government - the British medical association has issued strict rules for doctors on social media- it says something like doctors should not post any opinions or advices on social media as it reflects on the profession adversely. Although I live in India and the Indian government hasn’t had any say on this subject, it’s only a matter of time before they do too- most probably by copying the British government law verbatim- like we did with all of our other laws...Remember the Indian Penal Code, anyone?

Firstly, I welcome the move to curtail "online medical advice" for too many people write way too many medical advice columns using the  easy availability and wide reach of social media and so much so that anyone who gets to read a couple of pubmed articles via google immediately starts doling out medical advice to others. Where I disagree with the British medical association's new rules is on forbidding the use of the word "opinions". Now personally speaking, I am an opinionated man and I dole out my frank and outspoken (even contrary) opinion on all subjects under the sun- from relationship issues to current affairs to politics and I almost never confine my opinions to just my chosen profession. But gagging me only because I am a doctor seems to be a bit unfair to me when all other professions are allowed to vent their ideas and feelings online.

Every day as part of life I meet a lot of people (like the bus conductor of my regular bus, the waiter who serves me regularly at the hotel etc) -some of whom on learning that I am a doctor immediately cage for free medical advice or a second opinion on someone else's previous advice. As any responsible doctor would do- I listen to them, offer my opinion and always, always tell them to consult a good doctor straightaway for a real and valuable consultation. I remind them that I am not their doctor and as such I can only advise them generally based on the limited knowledge I have of them. I don’t consider doling out such free advice as a threat to the medical profession - especially as its only general opinions and nothing specific or in detail. Even when it comes to social media I follow the same set of rules whenever I reply to the half a dozen or so such messages I receive on facebook and twitter daily from friends and strangers. And I make it a point to almost never treat my social media friends as patients in real life because most such online friendships would not stand the test of seeing my real life consultation bill. 

Social media is a medium not supposed to be taken seriously in my view. It is a kind of hobby, a stress-buster to me. So why would I do online again all the same things I do in the real world from morning to night? I use social media to connect socially with people and to offer my views on life and life experiences, not to make money by doling out paid consultations. In fact one of the things I love about facebook or twitter is that I get to meet people with widely different (and unique) life experiences whom I would never get to meet in my real life circles- which revolves mainly around other doctors and hospitals. I am interested in everyone I meet (well except for the trolls)- because each of us has lived a unique life, had unique life experiences and have extraordinary stories to share with the world - social media helps me to hear those stores and apply it to my own life. Now why would the government object to that? Beats me.

And on the other side of the equation, like a software engineer, or like a teacher or an auditor or anyone else doctor’s too should be allowed to talk about their life including work life and its experiences on social media- just like you would tell your relatives and friends about the exciting day you had at work in any other profession. That doesn’t mean that the doctor is giving out secret professional information on patients which can be used against them. When I first started blogging there were too many trolls (mostly frustrated/incompetent doctors who were envious of my capacity to tell a medical story interestingly) who tried to abuse me and railed against me for violating doctor patient information - as if my blog had a million readers and I was sharing nuclear technology secrets on it. I routinely deleted all the spam mails from such envious people and have continued to write what I want to on my blog and letting my sense of professionalism and conscience to be my guide.

If you have been regular readers of this blog you would know that sharing my thoughts on social media involves mainly sharing with you about all the heartaches, emotions, confusions and frustrations of medicine. When I write about the struggle of a doctor to understand and diagnose a rare disease I am not stating that I am superior to other doctors- I just offer you a privileged inner view into the thought processes which go behind making a diagnosis- it’s like watching a match live on TV - everything is real- real patients and their real pain. I don’t think I am being unprofessional or betraying any secrets when I share with you the raw stories of how medicine works especially with all the emotions and feelings involved in each decision. And I am sure like people everywhere you too are interested in other people’s stories or my blog won’t be nearing a hundred thousand page views by now.

So I believe this effort to gag doctors from social media is a dangerous trend and should not succeed- not in Britain and definitely not in India- for I believe that like everyone else a doctor too should be allowed the freedom to express his opinions freely on social media. The story is what matters in the end, not the medium. So is it ok for me to tell your stories on my blog, friends? I await your frank responses. Do tell.

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