Professionals and social media

Sharing information through social media is now a daily activity for many. Networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter provide readily available forums through which opinion can easily be promulgated. Through the simple click of a button, a photo can be uploaded, an anecdote told or a rant shared.

Given the ubiquity of social media, it is no surprise that the General Medical Council (GMC) and other professional regulators have issued guidance to registrants about its use. Whilst the GMC’s guidance recognises that social media can assist in raising awareness for public health issues, facilitating patient access to healthcare information and in establishing national and international professional networks, it warns registrants to be particularly cautious about the following:

1. Confidentiality

Patient confidentiality is a significant concern when it comes to social media and the GMC warns registrants not to share identifiable patient information. Importantly, the guidance highlights that the sum of published material available may be enough to identify a patient, or someone close to them, even where they are not identified by name.

No social media site can guarantee privacy or confidentiality, regardless of the care a user takes in establishing their privacy settings. Registrants should, however, regularly review those and be aware of the extent to which their posts are visible to others.

2. Maintaining boundaries

Social media blurs the lines between public and private life and can raise professional boundary issues. The GMC cautions registrants to follow GMC boundaries guidance at all times and, should patients make contact through a private online profile, registrants should direct them towards their professional contact information.

3. Anonymity

The GMC advises that, if a registrant identifies themselves as a doctor, they should also identify themselves by name. Registrants should be aware that material written by doctors may be taken to represent the views of the profession as a whole and may be taken on trust by third parties.

4. Respect for colleagues

The guidance reminds doctors should ensure they treat their colleagues fairly and with respect whether in person or online.

5. Conflicts of interest

When posting material online, doctors should be open about any conflict of interest.

In a recent case, which received considerable media attention, a doctor was suspended by the MPT following a finding of misconduct in relation to his use of Twitter. The registrant had posted numerous comments on Twitter including derogatory comments relating to religion and, what he perceived to be, the inappropriate use of A&E services. He believed that his posts were restricted to his followers. His Twitter account identified him as a doctor and identified the NHS trust at which he worked. He admitted his use of Twitter was inappropriate.

Whilst perhaps an exceptional example, not least because of the volume of tweets posted, the case raises interesting questions as to the extent of professional regulators’ role in policing registrants’ use of social media. Cases where professionals have breached client confidentiality clearly fall within the regulator’s remit. However, registrants should not assume that the expression of personal views on issues such as religion or politics and unrelated to their professional practice will be immune from scrutiny. The message from the MPT in this case could not be clearer: persistent breaches of the GMC guidance can and will put a doctor’s registration at risk.

Click here to read the GMC’s guidance.

For more information and guidance, please contact:

Isabel Turner
Solicitor
T.
020 7227 7246
E. isabel.turner@rlb-law.com


Disclaimer

This briefing is for guidance purposes only. RadcliffesLeBrasseur accepts no responsibility or liability whatsoever for any action taken or not taken in relation to this note and recommends that appropriate legal advice be taken having regard to a client's own particular circumstances.

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