I’m a doctor – is it safe for me to be on Facebook?
Today, many people have daily contact with some form of social media. The most popular are Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Used sensibly and appropriately, there is no reason why doctors should not enjoy using these sites as much as anyone else. However doctors, together with other healthcare professionals, seem increasingly to be in difficulties with their regulatory bodies in fitness to practise hearings as a direct result of their use of such social media. This has led some to ask if it is professionally safe to be involved with social media.
Earlier this year the General Medical Council (GMC) issued guidance called ‘Doctors’ use of social media’. The guidance confirmed that the standards expected of doctors do not change just because they are communicating with the public via social media. However, the GMC did accept that the increasing use of social media creates new circumstances in which the established principles apply.
In addition to the GMC’s guidance, most Trusts and other employers will have policies on the use of social media, and professionals should at all times be aware of these too and adhere to their requirements where appropriate.
Does it matter what I do on social media in my own time?
In short, yes. The GMC will certainly not be deterred from investigating a doctor’s fitness to practise as the result of their use of social media just because it was conducted during a doctor’s personal life and at home. The GMC regulate the doctor as a person not just their professional standards of work.
What if a patient contacts me via social media?
With a blurring of the edges between public and private life, some doctors occasionally need to be reminded of the need to maintain professional boundaries between themselves and patients.
The GMC’s guidance suggest that if a patient contacts a doctor about their care or other professional matters through social media, that the doctor should indicate that they are not allowed to mix social and professional relationships and where appropriate direct the patient to their professional profile.
Doctors will be all too familiar with dealing with patients who have used the Internet to look up their condition, but may not have thought about the consequences of patients carrying out an online search for them.
For example, photographs of a doctor at what may have been a great night out is not the impression that most professionals will want his or her patient to receive. It is worth bearing in mind that an Internet search may have enabled the patient to find a doctor’s private Facebook page or even to be able to access photographs, which the doctor may not have even posted, but which may have been tagged with the doctor’s name.
The GMC’s guidance encourages doctors to be aware of the limitations of privacy settings and warns that patients, employers and colleagues may be able to access information about doctors present in social media.
The GMC’s guidance recognises that many doctors appropriately use various forums which are not available to the public to find advice about current practice and to exchange ideas. However the guidance warns that doctors should be careful not to share identifiable information about patients. Moreover, publically accessible social media should not be used to discuss individual patients or their care with those patients or anyone else.
If you identify yourself as a doctor in social media, the GMC’s guidance is that you should also identify yourself by name, as material written by doctors is likely to be taken on trust by members of the public and may be taken to represent the views of the wider profession.
Recent examples of fitness to practise concerns related to social media:
The GMC and other regulators hold fitness to practise hearings on a daily basis and are increasingly looking at allegations that involve the use of social media.
Recently published examples include:
- Sending a patient a Facebook friend request;
- Not ceasing social media contact with colleagues having been asked to do so;
- Using social media to threaten/intimidate colleagues;
- Sending inappropriate content to patients/colleagues via social media;
- Distributing sexually explicit material via social media;
- Making defamatory remarks about a current or past employer on social media;
- Photographic evidence identified on social media of abuse of hospital equipment;
- Photographic evidence of alcohol being consumed at work.
If you face any Trust investigation or fitness to practise allegations regarding your use of social media, or indeed any other issue, then please contact one of our expert lawyers at the Medic Assistance Scheme for a free and confidential telephone call on 084 4804 4805 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org