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Maintaining a professional digital profile

A false security of anonymity

Maintaining a professional digital profileShona, an intern in a large city hospital, is beginning to think about applying for training posts. She has recently attended a conference, where one of the speakers highlighted the advantages of blogs specifically aimed at medical professionals as a learning resource to share best practice.

Shona decides to create a blog to link to and showcase her research work to potential employers. She tells some of her friends about the blog, who visit the site and leave messages under one of the opinion pieces. The comments quickly become jokey as the interns reply to one another and some use inappropriate language to recount specific instances of treating difficult patients. An intern supervisor sees the blog and reports the intern who made the offensive posts to the Medical Council.

Consider all the following pitfalls before putting digital pen to paper: breach of patient confidentiality; defamation; breach of employment contract

Learning points

  • MPS’s advice would be to tread cautiously and consider all the following pitfalls before putting digital pen to paper: breach of patient confidentiality; defamation; breach of employment contract.
  • It is sensible to obtain the permission of your employer or educational supervisor before setting up a blog.
  • Remember that the internet is not a private space. When interacting with medical blogs and social networking sites, or when taking part in forum discussions, remember that anonymity is a myth, even if you use a pseudonym. You should write everything as if you are signing it with your name.
  • aintaining patient confidentiality applies online too. Don’t post informal or derogatory comments about patients or colleagues on public internet forums, even if they are anonymous. The Medical Council’s A Guide to Professional Conduct and Ethics states that: “Patients are entitled to expect that information about them will be held in confidence. You should not disclose confidential patient information to others except in certain limited circumstances outlined in paragraphs 26 to 30.” These circumstances include disclosures with the patient’s consent to relatives and carers, disclosures required by law, disclosure in the interest of the patient or other people, and disclosure in the public interest. (24.1)
  • Unguarded comments about patients, your place of work, or other staff members can lead to sanctions by your employer or the Medical Council. Comments of a racist, sexist or bigoted nature, posting inappropriate images, or sharing extreme views are also unacceptable.
  • You could face trouble if you harm someone’s reputation by publishing incorrect or potentially damaging information online.
  • Beware of jokes or activities that can seem like harmless fun online, but could backfire in reality.

Blurring the boundaries on Facebook

Niall, an intern, was halfway through completing a module in the Emergency Department. He was working one Friday night when a young female patient was brought in by two of her friends, having had a fit in a local bar. Niall took a history from the patient, and realised that she had been a geography student at his university.

Niall visited her the following day on the medical ward to follow up on her medical management. They seemed to get on well, so Niall invited her to be a friend on Facebook. After a while, the relationship soured, and the patient complained to the medical school about Niall’s conduct in contacting her and starting a relationship as a result of meeting her as a patient.

Learning points

  • Always maintain professional boundaries, which social networking can sometimes blur.
  • Do not accept current or former patients as friends or followers.
  • Exercise caution when accepting friend requests from colleagues.
  • Use the most secure privacy settings on social networking sites where available – but remember that not all information can be protected on the web.
  • Certain behaviours might affect your professional reputation, and possibly trigger an investigation by the regulator, for example irresponsible drinking. Certainly don’t publicise such behaviour online.
  • You have a duty to maintain the standards expected of a healthcare professional.
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