How to avoid the pitfalls of social media

Doctors, nurses, medical students and  other healthcare professionals are all in contact with personal and sensitive information about patients whether in the course of their work or training. Social media use is widespread, particularly Facebook and Twitter and a growing number of internet forums, blogspots and the like are directed specifically at medical and healthcare professionals. What is also apparent is that the use of the same can produce difficulties and potentially incidences of professional misconduct

An article in the Daily Mail last October highlighted the research undertaken by Big Brother Watch and the investigations revealing a number of cases of serious infringements on patient privacy.

These included nurses gossiping about patients on websites such as Facebook with friends colleagues and family. In one case a medical worker at Nottingham University hospital took a photograph of a patient and circulated it on Facebook and one nurse in Scotland was suspended for doing the same.

Other investigations unearthed that NHS staff have admitted snooping through medical files of family friends and colleagues or the same have been found  lying around in public places or are stolen or misplaced.

Other concerns are as outlined in an article recorded in the Psychological Reports journal recently, reporting that women are more likely than men to become addicted to Facebook and the findings also looked into the negative impact of this upon a person’s job or studies.

The issue of appropriate use of social media is very much the subject of discussion and indeed consultation by the GMC  at the moment. Few would disagree that social media is the communication method of the day  and it is unlikely to disappear. Some comments on discussion forums across the various healthcare sectors would tend to suggest that knowledge of guidelines issued by regulatory bodies is poor amongst their fellow co-workers.

Continued misuse or failure to adhere to the appropriate practice is likely to result in more complaints and potentially referrals to the NMC/GMC/HPC.

What are some of the general principles to be remembered? Some of these may seem obvious but as the cases have shown it is easy to make mistakes.

Professional codes of practice embody the central tenets of the profession. These include for most  the general duty to be honest and trustworthy in all dealings and communications with patients and colleagues. Also to uphold the standards to be expected and not to do anything which could damage the reputation of the profession

Using Social media personally – stay professional

Use of social media is a matter of personal judgment but you should also consider the wider issues of whether it could damage the reputation of the profession.

Remember that once it is uploaded or “tweeted” the content can become widely disseminated immediately and recall can be very difficult if not impossible.

Once it is recorded your material comments or content can be commented upon and distributed further.

Do you want everyone to see the photo or read your message?

Avoid mixing personal and professional relationships -do not accept friend requests from patients or former patients, or their family and politely explain why you cannot communicate via this media.

Review your privacy settings

Social Media and Patients

Maintain patient confidentiality at all times.

Standards expected of doctors, nurses, healthcare professionals do not change simply because the medium through which they are communicating has changed from face to face meetings to social media applications.

Consider what is more appropriately communicated by email or  telephone.

Avoid blurring the boundary between your professional and personal life- access by patients to your personal information can affect the professional relationship and this is a fundamental aspect of your professional duties and standards expected of you.

Never discuss or post content about patients -photographs must never be taken of patients/ service users or uploaded even if they ask you to.

Do not use social networking sites to build or pursue relationships with patients former patients or their families.

Do not use social networking sites to make complaints or discuss work related issues especially not to escalate or raise concerns which should be addressed directly to the appropriate member of staff or departmental head.

Do not make comments that could be considered defamatory to an individual or an organisation or damaging to a person’s reputation or character. Make it clear that any opinions expressed are your own and not those of your employer/ organisation with whom you are connected.

Professional development and networking

Discussions with colleagues and fellow practitioners can be extremely beneficial especially in the context of sharing clinical practice and experience.

Avoid sharing any detailed information or content which could result in the patient being identified. Patient consent is required before disclosure of any personal details can be shared- patient confidentiality is paramount.

It is always inappropriate to make any derogatory or potentially insulating comments about a patient or their family.

Keep discussions formal rather than informal as even where an individual item of information is shared combined with further comments or information it could lead to patient identification.

Use Linked-In rather than Facebook for networking with fellow professionals and familiarise yourself with the privacy settings.


Consider your social media, computer useage  and email protocol policies and ensure they cover the guidelines to be expected.

Consider scenarios you may encounter such as information disclosed on social networking sites and potential conflicts of interest if information relates directly to patients/ service users and has not been disclosed through the usual channels.

Consider the potential issue relating to Facebook content and potential employees.

Consider potential issues arising from comments and communications by staff whether about colleagues or other members of a practice or organisation amounting to abuse or bullying or unprofessional conduct and issue guidance for dealing with such matters.

The above is not intended to be a definitive statement of the law in this area. Reference should be made to the Professional Codes and guides as listed below. The above has been provided as an overview of the general principles and a summary of key guidelines.

Good Medical Practice 2012

GMC – Doctors’ Use of Social Media – a Draft for Consultation- www.gmc-uk.org

BMA- Using social Media

NMC- http://www.nmc-uk.org/social-networking-advice