There’s no doubt that social media plays an increasingly integral part in our everyday lives.

There are of course many advantages to social media – not least that it can be a great way to keep in touch with family, friends and colleagues – but with these boons come potential hazards. As social media seeps into the professional sphere, there is a risk that the boundaries between our personal and professional lives could become blurred. In my experience assisting members who have come up against the pitfalls of social media, the following are some of the most common difficulties they have encountered.

Friend requests from patients

We generally advise members not to befriend patients. This is obviously clearer in situations where there is a degree of continuing care. But what about the situation where the care is provided on a one-off basis – such as during the course of a late night A&E attendance where there is unlikely to be any future contact? The advice remains the same: that it is potentially an unwise course to follow and doctors should look closely at the privacy settings of their social media accounts to ensure that their public profiles are well controlled.

“Regardless of whether a patient is or is not identifiable, you should never post views or comments that would be seen as inappropriate or bringing the profession into disrepute.”

Discussion groups

Although you may be very careful about your own privacy settings, others may not be and doctors are encouraged to be mindful of this when contributing to group discussions, especially those with a clinical theme. Remember that it is the settings of the individual responsible for creating the group that determine what others are able to see, rather than those who contribute to it.

Likewise, apps such as WhatsApp provide an easy platform for group discussion, but you should be very wary about posting pictures and/or clinical details to such discussions as once they have been uploaded to the group there is no longer any control over what happens to them or how they are subsequently disseminated or used.

Patient confidentiality

One key issue is, of course, patient confidentiality, and while a patient may not be readily recognisable from something that you post, additional details that appear later in the discussion may well lead to the patient becoming identifiable. Regardless of whether a patient is or is not identifiable, you should never post views or comments that would be seen as inappropriate or bringing the profession into disrepute. These can lead to GMC and employer investigations.

Online comments

It is an unfortunate reality that some patients use social media to vent their frustrations about the medical profession, particularly their GPs. Very often the practice may wish to respond to such postings, but we advise caution in respect of this as often any replies simply serve to inflame matters. If a response is necessary we suggest indicating that the practice would be pleased to respond to any complaints, and asking the complainant to contact the practice manager.

Cactus

Photo credit: Getty Images

One final area of hazard posed by social media is the ease and speed in which one can get oneself into trouble. In this regard I end with a cautionary tale from American Nurse Today concerning a nurse who posted a comment on Facebook during her shift about a colleague who had accidentally soiled themselves. It was subsequently discovered that at the time she made the comments she was engaged in distributing patients’ medication and her employment was promptly terminated for ‘engaging in conduct that could cause a life-threatening situation’. It is worth remembering that such posts are timed and dated and therefore easily traced back.

In summary, please double check your social media privacy settings before engaging in patient-related discussions online and if you have any doubt – it is always better not to do it.

How to amend your privacy settings

Open the app (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, etc). On the top right of the screen you will usually find either ‘Account settings’, ‘Account manager’ or a cog symbol. Clicking on any of these will take you to a screen with a number of different options, one of which will be labelled ‘privacy’ or ‘privacy settings’. This is where you can set up or amend your preferences for who you allow to see and share your information. You will also be able to block named users. As well as privacy, there will be a ‘security’ option to help ensure your account is as secure as possible.

If you don’t see ‘Account settings’ or the cog symbol, you may instead see three dots in a vertical line, or three horizontal lines (known as a hamburger menu). Click on this and it will open another menu that includes ‘settings’, and you can follow the process as above.


This article was correct at publication on 12/08/2015. It is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.

James Stevenson

MDU Solicitor

LLB

James is a solicitor in the MDU's in house Legal Department. He was a partner at a leading clinical negligence firm before joining the MDU in 2013 and has a wide experience of claims and regulatory matters, with a particular interest in complex oncology cases and inquest work.

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