Some medical professionals are now acting as social media influencers – using their social media profiles to generate interest in topics, products, brands and services. As with all online communication it is an area that offers benefits and risks. Dr Beth Walker, Medicolegal Consultant at Medical Protection, looks into the issue further
Many doctors use social media, both personally and professionally. There is also now a generation of medical students and junior doctors who have grown up with it as part of their everyday lives. Instagram is a social media platform where users can create and share visual content with their followers and has approximately one billion active users worldwide. An increasing number of doctors and medical students are developing a professional presence on Instagram (and YouTube in some cases) with a growing proportion now held as social media “influencers”.
What is an influencer?
An influencer can be described as someone able to use their presence on social media to generate interest in topics, brands or products. In some cases, influencers receive payment from brands (or other benefits such as gifted products or services) to promote, endorse or review their products in their social media posts. The emerging trend of medical professionals acting as influencers has begun to receive increasing media attention. These “medical influencers” are often at a relatively early stage of their careers, including some still at medical school, and range from having a few thousand followers to several hundreds of thousands.
There are without doubt many benefits arising from medical influencers sharing content on social media. These include engaging followers in health awareness, facilitating access to information and education on a range of important health topics and raising awareness of public health campaigns, for example on mental health and cancer screening. However, acting as a medical influencer also comes with potential pitfalls and professional risks, which it is important to be aware of.
What does the GMC say?
The GMC’s guidance on Doctors’ use of social media sets out the standards expected and gives advice on challenges that can arise, for example relating to confidentiality or if a patient makes contact via social media. There is also helpful guidance available from the BMA and RCGP, as well as articles from Medical Protection on the use of social media and on frequently asked questions about this topic. In this article, we will focus on some specific aspects of the existing GMC guidance most relevant for doctors and medical students developing a professional presence on platforms such as Instagram.
In considering the standards required of any content created and shared on social media, the following paragraph from the GMC’s social media guidance is key:
“Any material written by authors who represent themselves as doctors is likely to be taken on trust and may reasonably be taken to represent the views of the profession more widely.”
Any content shared with the public on social media must adhere to the same professional standards as if being shared with a patient. The GMC’s Good Medical Practice advises that you must make reasonable checks to ensure any information provided is accurate and you must be aware of relevant guidelines. It would be advisable to state on posts that any medical information or guidelines signposted were up to date at the time of publication, in the event people revisit posts at a later date. You must also make clear the limits of your knowledge and act within your competence. 
Significant caution must be taken to ensure no individualised medical advice is provided to members of the public over social media, which would present considerable professional risk as well as a risk to patient safety.
Care must also be taken that personal and professional boundaries do not become blurred. The GMC makes clear the professional standards required of doctors do not change when communicating through social media. You must ensure your conduct in any content shared justifies patients’ and society’s trust in you, and the medical profession, at all times.
Conflicts of interest
The products and services that have been advertised, endorsed or featured by medical influencers are wide-ranging and include, by way of example, food products, protein supplements, beauty products, car manufacturers, fitness apps, alcoholic drinks, childcare products, fertility monitors, DNA analysis and a GP consultation app.
Doctors must maintain the trust placed in them, and the profession as a whole, by being honest and acting with integrity. When doctors enter into such commercial arrangements or other relationships with brands, there is a potential risk of undermining this trust. The GMC advises that you should be open about any conflict of interest when posting material online and declare any financial or commercial interests. You must be transparent about your relationship with any brand or business. If you have been paid, incentivised, or in any way rewarded (including gifts whether solicited or unsolicited) to endorse or review something in your content this needs to be made clear.
In a joint statement on handling conflicts of interest agreed by the nine statutory health and social care regulators, it is advised you must ensure your professional judgement is not compromised by personal, financial or commercial interests and incentives. The BMA advises that even where competing interests may not affect decision-making relating to patient care, they still have the potential to undermine trust in the doctor concerned as well as the profession as a whole.
You should carefully consider if a conflict of interest may arise, or be perceived to arise, and seek advice if you are unsure. The GMC advises in cases of uncertainty: “If you are in doubt about whether there is a conflict of interest, act as though there is.”
Medical influencers must also ensure they adhere to consumer protection law enforced by the Competition and Markets Authority and the Advertising Standards Agency codes and guidance governing advertisements and sponsored content on social media.
Deviating from the professional standards required of a doctor on social media carries significant risk, including the potential for a claim (for example, if individualised medical advice was provided) and complaints, including to the GMC.
Medical Protection would be unlikely to assist with claims arising from any material published or broadcast by you, or on your behalf, or to which you have contributed. This is because it is not directly arising from your professional relationship with patients. In the unfortunate event you were the subject of a complaint to your regulator as a result of social media activity you can approach Medical Protection for assistance in the usual way.
Doctors and medical students also need to be aware their employer, training programme or medical school may have their own policies on social media use and ensure they follow these.
If you have any concerns, contact Medical Protection on 0800 561 9090 for more advice.