Foundation doctors are increasingly using social media and smartphone apps to communicate with each other and senior colleagues. While this has many advantages, there are pitfalls to consider. Dr James Thorpe, Medicolegal Adviser at Medical Protection, investigates.
Read this article to:
- Understand why you should be cautious when using social media and apps in a professional capacity
- Learn tips to help you use social media and apps appropriately
The medical world is rapidly transforming because of the use of technology.. One of the most appealing elements of smartphones for medical professionals is the range of functions they perform; however, there is a thin line between what is acceptable and inappropriate, and dangers are often only a thumb-swipe away.
With many doctors now using smartphones and tablets for professional purposes, it is tempting to make use of file-sharing apps and websites to share clinical photographs with colleagues. While this may appear to be a valuable way to converse about medical conditions with other doctors or to seek another professional opinion, the medicolegal risks could outweigh the benefits.
These are a few of the popular apps and social media websites that you may be using in a professional capacity:
Recent press reports have acknowledged the widespread use of messaging services such as WhatsApp by the medical profession.1 Widely perceived as being an encrypted ‘secure’ way of sharing information, it is easy to see why utilising this technology can seem more efficient than an old-fashioned pager system. However, there is always a risk that messages containing patient information are inadvertently sent to the wrong recipient or a doctor’s phone is left ‘unlocked’ in a public place. In addition, photographs sent via WhatsApp may also be automatically uploaded to an individual’s ‘photo stream’, perhaps on a desktop device to which other individuals have access. It is important to note that NHS Digital have made clear that WhatsApp should never be used to share patient information.2 Doctors who do so face the risk of disciplinary action and complaints in the event of a breach of data security.
Platforms like Twitter are valuable for healthcare discussions – clinicians are able to easily interact and follow leaders in any area of medicine who distribute the latest medical news and information. Twitter must never be used to share confidential information and doctors should also be mindful of the GMC’s 2013 social media guidance, which states that: “if you identify yourself as a doctor in publicly accessible social media, you should also identify yourself by name”.3
Social media sites blur the boundary between an individual’s public and professional life. It is important to note that both employers and the GMC can take action in the event of an inappropriate post on Facebook. For example, in 2009 a group of doctors and nurses were suspended for playing the ‘lying down game’ whilst on night shift and posting photographs on social media.4 Other doctors have been disciplined for making inappropriate comments regarding colleagues or patients. Maintaining professional boundaries is another area where difficulties can arise for junior doctors using social media. The GMC makes clear that: “If a patient contacts you about their care or other professional matters through your private profile, you should indicate that you cannot mix social and professional relationships and, where appropriate, direct them to your professional profile.”
Ten things to consider when using social media and apps
- Maintain and protect patients’ information by not publishing any information that could identify them on social media.
- Maintain appropriate boundaries in the relationships you have with colleagues.
- Comply with any internet and social media policy set out by your employer.
- As a clinician, you have a responsibility to behave professionally and responsibly both online and offline.
- Your online image can impact on your professional life and you should not post any information, including photographs and videos that may bring the profession into disrepute. Once you post a comment or photograph online you relinquish control of that information, so think carefully before hitting ‘send’ or ‘upload’.
- Anything you post on social media is in the public domain and can be easily copied and redistributed without your knowledge.
- You should presume that everything you share online will be there permanently.
- You should regularly review your privacy settings to ensure unintended audiences do not access information. Healthcare professionals should be aware that the default settings for Twitter are public – unlike Facebook, where members need to approve social connections, anyone can follow anyone on Twitter.
- Even the strictest privacy settings do not guarantee your information will be kept secure. Both Facebook and Twitter allow various types of content to be shared beyond an individual’s network of friends.
- Any information you post could be viewed by anyone, including your patients, colleagues or employer.
- Wakefield J. Use of WhatsApp in NHS ‘Widespread’, say doctors. BBC News. 6 July 2017
- NHS Digital. Social media security: user guide (2017)
- GMC. Doctors’ use of social media (2013)
- The Guardian. Hospital staff suspended for playing Facebook ‘lying down game’. 9 September 2009
Find out more
If you are unsure about how to tackle a situation online, talk to your supervisor, or contact Medical Protection to discuss the best way forward. Contact our medicolegal helpline on 0800 561 9090 or email firstname.lastname@example.org