Here’s an interesting ethical question: let’s say a patient is working with a medical team to manage his diabetes. The patient swears he is following the doctor’s dietary recommendations, but his body does not appear to be responding in the way the doctor expects. Later, the nurse assigned to the patient does some social network snooping. She finds one Facebook status update after another indicating that the patient is not, in fact, following the recommended diet at all.
Is what the nurse did ethical? What if the patient had chosen to make his Facebook profile public? What if she was able to use the information she found on Facebook to give the patient better treatment and create a more workable diet plan?
Although there are very few doctors or nurses who are busily snooping into patients’ social media profiles after hours, the question of whether it is appropriate to scan a patient’s social media records is likely to become a significant ethical question in the next three to five years. After all, it’s already become ethically acceptable for potential employers to search social media profiles for clues about a job candidate’s personal life and commitment to a career; it’s assumed that in the case of job hunting, all social network information is fair game.
Why not in healthcare as well?
The truth is that you can get a lot of data from social network postings. You can tell when a patient goes to sleep and when that patient wakes up. You can often tell what that patient eats for dinner, how frequently the patient exercises, and how often the patient enjoys activities with friends or family members. Advertising companies use social media to figure out whether a patient is pregnant, even if the patient hasn’t announced the pregnancy; why can’t doctors and nurses do the same?
Right now, one of the biggest roadblocks to searching patients’ social media profiles for medical clues isn’t a lack of interest; it’s a lack of time. It’s no secret that medical professionals work long hours; adding Facebook-sleuthing duties to their workload will take time away from other, more important duties.
However, it’s also very easy to imagine a start-up company who wants to take this responsibility out of doctors’ hands. Imagine signing on with a data aggregator that spits out a slip of paper every time you see a new patient. The paper contains the following details, scraped from social media:
- Sleep and wake times
- Dietary habits
- Recorded exercise
- Recorded alcohol consumption
- Social outings
- Statements describing mood
- Statements describing physical condition
Wouldn’t that be an amazing tool?
Here are a few problems: first, people often exaggerate their lives on social media, or leave out important details. They take pictures of the chocolate cake they’re eating, but not the steamed broccoli. Likewise, it is incredibly easy to hack social media. Identity theft is rampant these days, underscoring the need for iOS and Android smartphone security on mobile devices. But hacks of mobile Facebook profiles are still extremely common, and a data aggregator won’t be able to tell when a patient’s profile has been hacked.
Lastly, people will probably start censoring their profiles once they know Big Hospital is watching, the same way they make specific social media choices when they’re looking for jobs.
It’s clear that social media holds a lot of potential data that could be helpful to doctors, nurses, and their patients. What isn’t clear is how to use that data effectively or ethically. This is likely to be one of the big questions facing healthcare in the next few years, as social media companies collect more data on individuals and other companies jump in to redistribute and sell that data. Will doctors and nurses take a peek? Only time will tell.
Do you think it is ethical for a doctor or nurse to look at a patient’s social media records? Let us know in the comments.