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What can I do to protect myself on social media?

29 September 2016

The rise of social media has presented many new opportunities to communicate with patients – but this also presents new challenges for healthcare professionals. Dr Harpreet Sarna advises how to maintain a reputable and professional brand online.

With social media more prevalent in day-to-day life than ever before, there are more patient confidentiality pitfalls to consider, and doctors must take care to avoid unintentional data disclosures. Practitioners must also be mindful that, when communicating via social media, any comments made relating to patients, colleagues or employers can be published to a wider audience.

With that in mind, Dr Sarna answers members’ queries on how best to utilise social media as a healthcare professional.

  1. How can a practice deal with abuse from patients on social media?

    We understand the personal and professional toll that abusive behaviour can take on a practitioner, and social media is no exception. Any manner of abuse from patients should be handled effectively, in a considered manner. While abusive communication via social media will pose a problem for any doctor and their practice, achieving open communication with the patient is a good place to start.

    Approaches to dealing with this communication will be circumstantial – aim for a mutually acceptable resolution of the patient’s concerns. Don’t be tempted to respond in a similar manner to the patient or with an explanation directly over social media. Maintaining professionalism is paramount. Always remember your duty of confidentiality. Practices may wish to ensure the patient understands that any form of abuse is unacceptable, and social media providers generally offer the option to report these comments.

  2. Is it ok for a patient to take a photograph during a minor surgical procedure?

    Although it may sound unusual, there is an increasing volume of requests to take photographs during minor surgery. If a patient asks to take a photograph, you might want to discuss their reasons. If, after this discussion, you have no concerns, there is no reason to refuse it. However if the picture could potentially capture something it shouldn’t, such as confidential information or another patient, it would be your duty to intervene. Clinics may wish to implement a policy here.

  3. What should a social media clause within a staff confidentiality statement include?

    It is increasingly important to include a social media clause in your staff confidentiality statement. The following items might be helpful:

    • It is inappropriate for a healthcare professional to post derogatory comments about a patient on social media
    • It would also be inappropriate to discuss social media posts in a clinical setting
    • Staff members or the practice should not be discussed on social media sites
    • Users should be aware that social media sites often have a quick means by which to report abuse
    • Healthcare professionals should avoid accessing patients’ social media sites or adding them as friends
    • Overall, staff members should act with the conduct that would be expected in work. Patients, consultations or enquiries should not be discussed via social media, and nor should details of the day-to-day running of the practice.
  4. A staff member has been criticised on our Facebook page – what should I do?

    In this event, you should communicate with the complainant, and follow your complaints protocol.

    Ideally, strategies will link to circumstance, but contacting the patient directly and offering to address their concerns is helpful. This allows you to look into allegations and respond to criticism, whilst steering the patient away from voicing negative views online.

Overall, what are your top tips for using social media as a healthcare professional?

  • You have a responsibility to your patients and your practice to behave professionally online and offline.
  • Protect patients' information by not publishing any identifying details without their explicit consent.
  • Where applicable, comply with the social media policy set out by your employer.
  • Everything you post online may be there permanently. Additionally, it is now in the public domain, meaning it can easily be copied and shared without your knowledge. Even strict privacy settings do not provide security.

Be aware that the default setting for Twitter is public – anyone can follow anyone.

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