#Stalkerish? Providers Follow Patients on Twitter

The Mayo Clinic is one of the top healthcare providers to leverage social media. Their main microblogging platform is Twitter and they have over 1 million followers and counting! They use social media to ultimately empower patients to be their own advocate by using these platforms as mediums for accessible health information as well as a bi-directional conversation between patient and providers or patient to patient on any health related questions/concerns. Can it ever get out of hand? Hmmm…

Providers use Twitter to follow patients to obtain feedback/data on patient needs. The Mayo Clinic initiated a discussion about privacy concerns on an article last year that started with the phrase:

“My gynecologist just followed my vagina on Twitter” 


Twitter is a powerful microblogging platofrm for providers to disseminate timely succinct health education and for patients to share or ask questions. Furthermore, it provides 360 degree data for health institutions on culture, needs and patterns of its target audience. There is a great deal of benefits.

Now the question that emerges…Is this creepy or unethical?

People who say no: 

1. Implied knowledge that Twitter puts you in public. Just like how it’s ok to make fun of Taylor Swift since public surveillance is part of her job much like having a Twitter account.

2. Utilitarianism: Promote greater good in health by obtaining info on following patients

People who say yes: 

1. Crosses over patient/provider boundary

2. Patients feel uncomfortable (emotional discomfort/harm)

3. Mean doesn’t justify the end

Despite disagreements there is an ultimate ethical concern as long as we have people who feel uncomfortable.

How do we address the ethics of this?

Let patients initiate!! Providers, public health leaders should never proactively seek to follow patients or people they work with. The power dynamic becomes an ethical issue where mutual consent is not always there. If patients initiate, there is confirmed consent established.


3 thoughts on “#Stalkerish? Providers Follow Patients on Twitter

  1. Interesting post, Jessica. I wonder if this scenario could work both ways. Could a patient follow their doctor’s FB or Twitter accounts, and if yes, isn’t that also an invasion of privacy? It’s one thing if they want to follow their provider’s accounts just because, but it’s another story if they want to use social media outlets to ask personal questions about their health and etc. I think you bring up an interesting point about social media: where do we draw the line? For instance, I have struggled with whether or not I should friend my coworkers on FB. My FB page isn’t that exciting, in terms of hiding any pictures that I wouldn’t want my coworkers to see, but still there is a sense of wanting to keep my personal life private (even though its on the internet!). I know that a few of my coworkers have “rules” against friending people from the company, while others are more lenient. A discussion of where do draw a line with social media could be an interesting followup to your blog.

  2. Hi Jessica,

    This is an interesting post, I like how you decided to talk about the “ethical” side of things and discuss the privacy implications of having a Twitter account. I think that you chose a great example to illustrate how a patient-doctor relationship can become uncomfortable when there isn’t any “consent” to follow the patient. But just as Luda mentioned in her comment, I think it could also be considered an invasion of privacy when patients follow their doctors. I think this is the case when you have a private account because it exposes your followers to information about you that you might not want them to know (i.e. political views, religious beliefs). But then again, having a Twitter account, in a sense, makes you vulnerable to publicity. The fact that people can follow you with the click of a button, and without acquiring any consent or approvals, should make people think twice about the kind of information that they share on Twitter. I think that Twitter users should consider, “Am I okay with anyone/everyone seeing what I am about to Tweet?” and if not, maybe don’t share that information on Twitter but maybe only on Facebook where you have much more control over who sees what you post. This is one of the reasons I don’t feel comfortable with Twitter. I looked at the privacy settings in Twitter (after creating an account for the purposes of this course) and noticed that you can control whether or not people can search for you by your email and phone, among a few other settings but of course there’s no option for you to control who follows you. I see this as a drawback of using Twitter for personal use. However, I do believe that public health organizations are making good use of Twitter to spread awareness and promote education about prevention and new public health initiatives.

    There are just two things I wanted to suggest. I noticed that your post came up as “unclassified” so if you put it under one of the 4 categories (online tools, strategy, leadership and management or media production) and also if you added tags, it would be easier for others to find your posts. Also, it would help others to identify what kind of content you are sharing based on the way you’ve categorized it. Secondly, I think it would have been helpful to provide an example of the benefits of using Twitter to foster patient-doctor relationships. I think it’s great that you presented both sides of the case (i.e. people who answer yes or no to the question “Is it creepy or unethical for doctors to follow their patients?”) Since you gave an example of how this patient-doctor relationship seemed a bit “creepy” or uncomfortable for the patient, I think it would have been interesting to also showcase how this type of patient-doctor relationship has been viewed as a positive interaction, especially because you mention that Twitter can be a great way for doctors to share information with their patients and to provide a platform for asking questions. I think especially because you highlighted this potential benefit, it would have been nice to back it up with an example.

    Thanks for sharing Jessica, this was an interesting read! I think you touched on a very relevant topic of concern!

  3. I also liked that you raised an ethical question. It also raises a legal question. Does it violate HIPAA for a doctor to follow a patient without patient consent? I liked the way you used the Mayo Clinic example because it gave me somewhere else to look into the subject. I think it might be interesting to add some examples of Twitter going too far.

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