Are you using social media ethically?

Medico-legal adviser Sabrina Cardillo explores the ethical responsibilities of using photos or videos on social media as a medic and how to stay within GMC guidance.

Social media can be a great way to grow your online presence as a future doctor, but there are also risks and ethical considerations that may harm not only your professional reputation, but the public's trust in the profession. It's important to familiarise yourself with the GMC's guidance on social media.

The GMC expects doctors to act in a professional way. This includes behaviour outside of the workplace setting, and this standard also applies to students. Like doctors, a medical student's behaviour should not undermine the public's trust in the medical profession.

Once you've read the article, take our quiz to test your knowledge.

Common pitfalls

Private messaging

As well as sharing content on apps or websites, the GMC considers 'social media' to include private messaging, which can become public when you least expect it.

The GMC has a legal duty to investigate concerns that reach its fitness to practise threshold (when you apply for registration, or when you're on the register). Even comments that might be intended as humorous, sent to an encrypted private group, might end up being disclosed and investigated. It's important to always stay professional and not post, send or like inappropriate or offensive content or messages.

Maintaining confidence in the profession

The GMC guidance is clear that maintaining public trust is important and part of that is how you behave on social media. Everyone has a right to freedom of expression but that is not an unlimited right; you could be criticised if you express yourself in a way that is seen as undermining public confidence. Keep in mind that content uploaded anonymously can often be traced back to its point of origin.

Accidentally revealing location or personal details

While building a professional brand, it's common to use your trust's premises to photograph or film your content. If the setting is familiar to any followers who live locally, this can reveal your location as well as inadvertently revealing personal identifying information through your name badge.

Colleagues or visitors in the background may also be unaware of the nature of filming taking place and may not consent to being filmed, or that it will be used to generate social media content.

Patient confidentiality and autonomy

Maintaining patient confidentiality is one of your core duties as a medical student and doctor. It's easy to make errors and inadvertently breach confidentiality if you use images or video taken at your workplace.

A patient (even someone walking through the background of a shot) can become identifiable even if their name/face is not used, particularly if the time and their location is identifiable. This can also be a risk when no patients appear in the images. A 'day in the life' video might, for example, inadvertently include a list of patients, test results or other information.

The GMC's 'Achieving good medical practice' acknowledges that many improper disclosures of patient information are unintentional and that you should never discuss patients in a public place, or on social media, as there is a chance that someone online may know who you are talking about.

Conflicts of interest

If you're approached to promote a product, medication, or treatment, this may pose some ethical challenges. The GMC's guidelines state that medical students should not "misrepresent [your] skills or level of training to others", so questions may be raised if you're seen to endorse or promote any sort of medication or treatment that may be outside of your level of competence or expertise.

You should always maintain transparency and disclose conflict of interest to your audience to promote credibility and trust.

Competence and potential misinformation

While it can be tempting to post medical advice to help combat the wealth of medical misinformation online, this is not without risk. It's important to recognise that some knowledge, and the ability to research a topic, are no substitute for lived experience gained through years of practical application of this knowledge.

The GMC states that doctors must recognise and work within the limits of their competence, and as a student, you should "only treat patients or give medical advice when you are under the supervision of a registered healthcare practitioner" - which means avoiding giving medical advice online.

Any advice you give as a medical student is likely to be given weight because of your medical training. As such, although your motivation to post medical advice may stem from good intentions, posting online can leave you vulnerable to criticism and, in fact, may inadvertently contribute to the spread of misinformation.

It's important to be mindful of this and work within the limits of your competence. Before posting clinical content online, ask yourself: if you were asked to justify your advice, can you really confirm that you have expertise and qualifications to be an authority on the subject?

The MDU's advice on using social media ethically

  • Check your employer's social media policies and do not use any images/video taken at your workplace without agreement from your trust. Your trust may not have a specific social media policy for newer platforms such as Threads or TikTok, so you should get specific advice from your trust's communications team if you plan to use photos or videos shot on trust premises as part of your content. See the GMC's dos and don'ts on social media.
  • Keep in mind both patient confidentiality and your personal safety. Avoid revealing your workplace location by, for example, filming the hospital's car park, or in public areas, as these can be easily recognisable. Keep filming to your profile, without any paraphernalia, team members, patients or passers-by in the background.
  • Be aware of the limits of your knowledge and competence, so that you can safely share advice without putting your own professionalism at risk. This includes not giving specific medical advice to members of the public who approach you online.
  • When providing commentary on your post or on discussion forums, be aware that what may be acceptable to say now may not be socially acceptable in 10 years' time, and even by deleting your post, this may have already been archived by a third party.
  • Some individuals may seek a dispute and deliberately provoke you, even if you have had no direct involvement with them before. Remain professional, avoiding discriminatory or inflammatory language. Sometimes, it may be best not to engage.
  • Your device and social media platforms may be subject to compromise, for example, by hacking, which can result in your location being revealed. Review privacy settings for devices; use strong, secure passwords, and update your security software regularly.

Navigating social media may seem daunting when taking into consideration your position as a medical student and the additional responsibilities you hold, however, when used correctly and responsibly, social media can be a powerful tool.

Take the quiz

Think you've got your head around using social media as a medical student? Take our short quiz to test your knowledge.

This page was correct at publication on 13/05/2024. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.

Dr Sabrina Cardillo

by Dr Sabrina Cardillo BSc (hons) MBBS MRCOG MA DRSRH

Sabrina joined the MDU as a medico-legal fellow in 2022 and has been medico-legal adviser since May 2023. Before joining the MDU, she worked in obstetrics and gynaecology, gaining her MRCOG in 2019. She has an MA in medical law and ethics.