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85% of Physicians Are Concerned About Online Privacy

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Eighty-five percent of physicians are concerned about a patient finding their personal information online, according to a poll of 2,056 physicians in May 2023.

With information increasingly available online, and physicians growing their digital presence, digital privacy and safety risks may need to be managed. Prior to the pandemic, a survey of U.S. physicians showed that 23% reported being personally attacked on social media. An updated JAMA report of physicians and biomedical scientists found that percentage rose nearly threefold during the pandemic. In the study of 359 respondents, 66% reported experiencing harassment online, and 18% said they had someone share their personal information as a result.  

Family medicine doctor Preston Thomas, MD commented, “I've had several patients tell me where I lived and who I was related to.” 

While online privacy is a concern for the majority, some groups of physicians are more concerned than others.

The poll responses show women are more concerned: 90% of women are concerned about online privacy (a “yes” response), while 43% have had first-hand experience with a patient finding their contact information online. By comparison, 81% of men are concerned about online privacy, and 34% have first-hand experience with a patient finding their contact information online. This is in line with the recent JAMA report, where 67% of individuals who reported they were harassed on social media were women. 

In addition, physicians under 40 are the most concerned about online privacy (88%), but also the least likely group to have experienced a patient obtaining their personal contact information online (27%). Older physicians are less concerned, with 85% of physicians ages 40-60 responding affirmatively, along with 76% of physicians 60 years and older.

Of note, several specialties are concerned about online privacy, whether a patient has found their information online before or not, at a greater rate than the 85% average, including PM&R (96%), neurology (93%), emergency medicine (92%), psychiatry (89%), internal medicine (89%), and anesthesiology (86%). Psychiatrists (43%), Pediatricians (42%), and Ophthalmologists (42%) are the most common specialties to have experienced a patient finding their information online. 

Some physicians share their personal contact information with patients and have had good experiences. “I have lived in the community where I work my entire life. At least 25% or more of my patients have my cell phone and email,” said Paula Tremayne, DO, “... [the] majority of my patients are very respectful and would never use my cell phone to reach me, even though they have it. I think it’s reassuring to them that’s all.”

Even if physicians choose to share some information with patients, there may still be an opportunity to protect privacy online. While there has been an increased focus on physician safety in the workplace, steps to protect online privacy are mostly up to individuals. “I request my personal information to be removed by [websites where I can be looked up],” said NP Connie Seymour. “[However,] they often make the steps difficult to complete.” 

Physicians can leverage technology to increase their online privacy and safety through safeguarding their caller ID and reducing information freely available online, among other approaches. These steps may ultimately help reduce the online privacy concerns that the majority of physicians share, and create a safer digital environment for clinicians.

Image by Westend61 / Getty

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