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Staying safe on social media

15 July 2021

Social media can be a very powerful tool for medical professionals, and the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated how the rapid sharing of information and experiences across the world can be useful in the face of a novel disease. It can also be helpful or enjoyable in other aspects of a medical professional’s life, such as connecting with peers, engaging with stakeholders, learning and understanding perspectives and issues faced by patients and the public. 

It is not uncommon to have profiles on various different platforms, and to communicate with others on public applications or a messaging service. Medical Protection has been involved in many cases involving social media, particularly Medical Council investigations. As use of social media increases, so do the associated risks for doctors. 

Social media platforms are settings where it is easy for professional and personal boundaries to be blurred. It is crucial to hold in mind, while navigating social media, that doctors are still bound by their professional obligations as outlined in the Medical Council of Hong Kong Code of Professional Conduct, and expectations around doctors’ professionalism are the same on social media as outside it. 

Here are five tips for keeping your career and reputation safe on social media:

1. Consider privacy settings and permanency. Think about who has access to your profile and posts. Even if you are in a private or closed group, don’t forget that your messages could be shared by others more widely. 

2. Remain professional in your communications. Consider how your behaviour may appear to others if it was made public (or shown to a patient, your employer or regulator), and how this may reflect on the medical profession as a whole.

3. Maintain professional boundaries.
The doctor-patient relationship should remain a professional one, and this should not be blurred. The Medical Council advises that doctors “should exercise special care and prudence in situations which could leave them open” to allegations of taking advantage of a patient’s emotional dependency (Code of Professional Conduct, Section 25).

4. One of the duties of a physician outlined by the Medical Council is to “respect a patient’s right to confidentiality” (Code of Professional Conduct). Hospital Authority staff have been advised that patient privacy must be protected, and clinical information, or images, must not be circulated on social media. Indeed doctors must take care not to inadvertently breach their duty of confidentiality to patients. Even if no patient name is included in a clinical story, the details provided could mean that it is in fact identifiable if the patient or their family can recognise who is being discussed.

5. There can be benefits of using social media through sharing, debating and learning about good clinical practice. Be mindful that any advice you receive about a clinical situation should not be treated as definitive. Although it may lead to further exploration or discussion with peers and colleagues, it should not replace the usual discussions amongst colleagues in the professional setting. 

Medical Protection members with regulatory cover are entitled to seek assistance with Medical Council investigations relating to social media use.