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How to stay safe when using social media

30 May 2014

Doctors are increasingly using social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and blogs to communicate with each other and with their patients.

While this has clear advantages in being quick, easy and accessible, the blurring of professional boundaries in the virtual world of the internet can lead to potential problems.

MPS Head of Medical Services – Asia, Dr Ming-Keng Teoh highlights his top tips for doctors regarding the use of social media:

Be secure

Maintain strict security settings and be vigilant with your standards.

Use the most secure privacy settings on social networking sites, but remember this is not failsafe and not all information can be protected on the web. Identities can be traced so be careful you don’t inadvertently post comments about your work, patients or your hospital.

Declaring that you are a doctor also adds weight and credibility to your views, and with that privilege comes a responsibility not to undermine public confidence in the profession. If you are providing medical opinion and are happy for it to be professionally held to account then you must identify yourself as a doctor.

However, I would suggest that a social network is not a place to raise a concern. Even ‘doctors only’ forums have risks as they may be accessed by members of the public or employers, or friends of friends may pass on information attributable to you.

Respect confidentiality

Your duty of confidentiality applies online as well as offline.

Doctors are afforded a privileged position by their access to patients and information divulged in communication with them. To abuse this is to erode trust and confidence in the doctor-patient relationship.

Posting inappropriate comments/photographs or describing a patient’s care on a social media site can damage your reputation, lead to disciplinary action as well as unwanted media attention.

Posting inappropriate comments/photographs or describing a patient’s care on a social media site can damage your reputation, lead to disciplinary action as well as unwanted media attention

Even if you do not mention a patient’s name they may be identifiable from information written about them, especially if the case is reported in the local press.

Act professionally

As doctors, we are not only representing ourselves but the hospital or practice we work in. You have a responsibility to act professionally at all times and not bring the profession into disrepute.

Consider who may be able to access embarrassing photographs of you and whether there is information you would not want your employer to see. Derogatory or flippant comments about patients can be damaging to the public perception of doctors and their trust in the profession.

Maintain boundaries

It may be flattering to receive online contact or a “friend” request from a patient with whom you have a good rapport, but conversing with patients online is inadvisable. Relationships should be kept strictly professional and the doctor-patient boundary should not be blurred.

Be cautious about online contact with colleagues too so as to maintain the distinction between your personal and professional lives.

Criticism: think before you type

Once you post a comment or photograph online you relinquish control of that information, so think carefully before hitting ‘send’.

Although critical comments patients make about your care online may be upsetting, seen as damaging to your professionalism, or even possibly defamatory, avoid giving a knee-jerk reaction when responding.

It is important to keep a cool head and look at the issues objectively.

Consider whether to treat the comment as a complaint through the usual channels, which will allow you the opportunity to explore and investigate their concerns and provide an explanation and apology where appropriate.

Doctor–patient confidentiality prevents you from directly challenging negative feedback; however, such comments can be diffused creatively with a positive response. For instance, if a patient comments “my appointment was late and my doctor seemed in a hurry to get me out the door”, you could reply stating: “As the only practice offering this service in the area, we pride ourselves on serving as many patients as possible.”

Should a user’s feedback reveal a genuine deficiency, use it as an opportunity to improve your practice. Invite the patient to discuss their concerns and provide a point of contact, demonstrate that you have listened to their concerns and are addressing them – the patient may even reply with a positive comment online.

If you are still unsure

If you are still unsure about how to tackle a tricky situation online, talk to your employer, supervisor, medical school or contact MPS to discuss the best way forward.

Taking care to avoid these potential pitfalls will help you make the most of social media, which offers exciting new ways to communicate in the ever-changing world of medicine, and has become an integral part of our lives.