In today’s media-driven society, the boundaries between private and professional life are becoming increasingly blurred. In such a fast-moving environment, it’s all too easy to forget that the advice about personal behaviour and patient confidentiality applies equally online.
In 2013, the GMC published Doctors’ use of social media, its first explicit guidance on the safe and professional use of social media. The guidance states that expectations around doctors’ professionalism are the same when using social media, and that maintaining boundaries with patients, safeguarding confidentiality and showing respect for colleagues are fundamental aspects of these expectations. The guidance also says that if you identify yourself as a doctor within publicly accessible social media, you should identify yourself by name.
For doctors, there is the additional risk of patients contacting you through social networking sites. In addition to allowing patients access to your personal details, these sites are generally inappropriate for medical discussions. You should certainly avoid adding patients as ‘friends’, or engaging with them in this way.
Beware of jokes or activities that can seem like harmless fun online, but could backfire in reality. In 2009, seven doctors and nurses were suspended from duty at Great Western Hospital in Swindon after taking part in the Facebook craze – the Lying Down Game. The staff on the night shift took turns to photograph themselves on ward floors, resuscitation trolleys and on the building’s helipad. The pictures featured on a Facebook page called the Secret Swindon Emergency Department. Their employers were concerned that those involved had breached health and safety and infection control regulations, so they were suspended and faced disciplinary action. Of course, media interest also had a negative effect on the reputation of the hospital, the NHS, and the professionals involved.
Real life scenario
Mark, a fourth year medical student, chose to complete a student selected module in A&E. 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 pub. Mark took a history from the patient, and realised that she was a first year geography student at the same university. Mark visited her the following day on the medical ward to follow up on her medical management. They seemed to get on well, so Mark invited her to be a friend on Facebook. After a while, the relationship soured, and the patient complained to the medical school about Mark’s conduct in contacting her and starting a relationship as a result of meeting her as a patient. Fitness to practise procedures were instigated.
As a student, professional boundaries may seem blurred. Students may feel that, since they are not the professional caring for a patient, the limits around personal relationships do not apply. However, the GMC is clear that: “Doctors and students are expected to maintain a professional boundary between themselves and their patients or anyone close to the patient.” Think about how you might handle situations like the one above. If you have any concerns, discuss these with your consultant or clinical supervisor.
For more information or guidance around the use of social media or issues you might be facing, call our support and advice line on 0800 952 0442