Guide to social media

Guide to social media header

Social media is part of life and here to stay. Ensuring you use social media with care is important for you and your patients.

Social media

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, discussion forums, content communities, blogs and so on – have many advantages for doctors and patients alike. They allow public discussion on policy changes and the future of medical practice, and provide easy access to healthcare information for patients. They enable medical professionals to discuss developments in their specialty. 

But there are also disadvantages, not least the risk of blurring professional boundaries, disclosing personal information to the public and breaching patient confidentiality. 

The GMC has made it clear that the standards expected of doctors do not change because they are communicating through social media

In Doctors' use of social media (2013), the GMC also advises doctors:

  • not to discuss individual patients or their care via publicly accessible social media
  • not to bully, harass or make gratuitous, unsubstantiated or unsustainable comments about individuals online – whether about patients or colleagues
  • that it is not appropriate to raise concerns about patient safety through social media
  • if you identify yourself as a doctor, you should also identify yourself by name.

Pitfalls and how to avoid them

If you have a public-facing image on any form of social media, then this may be accessed by anyone, including: 

  • past, current or future patients 
  • employers 
  • colleagues 
  • solicitors 
  • national media 
  • regulatory bodies.

Maintaining a profile that projects a professional image, is accurate, based on verifiable information and not misleading is an essential starting point for any web pages that may be accessed by the public. 

You owe a duty of confidentiality to all your patients, whether living or dead. Posting details of a clinical case, however heavily anonymised, for the purpose of education may result in the patient's identity being recognised – by the patient, their family, your colleagues, or even members of the public. In the absence of fully informed patient consent, this would constitute a breach of patient confidentiality. 

Images or audio-visual recordings relating to clinical cases can only be used if you have the patient's consent in writing. The only exceptions are images of internal organs, pathology slides, laparoscopic or endoscopic images, recordings of organ function and x-ray or ultrasound images. 

Information and images of a personal nature may be accessed by more people than you intended and can cause problems. In 2009 a number of emergency department staff were suspended by their employer for posting images of themselves 'planking'. 

This pastime involves taking pictures of yourself or your friends lying down with your arms by your side and feet pointing to the floor. Extra points are awarded for unusual settings, in this case hospital trolleys and the air ambulance helipad.

This was really just some fun between friends but serves to demonstrate how important it is to ensure that any posting is professional in nature. It is also essential that you use the privacy settings to ensure your posts cannot be seen by anyone other than your personal or professional contacts. 

The GMC has made it clear that the standards expected of doctors do not change because they are communicating through social media.

It may prove detrimental to your professional standing, and possibly your career, if you are tagged in photos other people post to their own page, especially if the image shows you in an unprofessional light. 

If a patient contacts you directly through a personal social media site, then it would be inappropriate to engage in any discussion with them in this forum. You should advise them to contact you through an appropriate confidential and professional route. 

Social media sites cannot guarantee confidentiality whatever privacy settings are in use. Therefore engaging in any form of discussion with a patient about their care is to be avoided. You can put in place privacy settings to protect your personal information as fully as possible to minimise some of the risk, but maintaining professional boundaries with patients at all times is of paramount importance. Be careful who you accept as friends and do not accept requests from patients. Accepting a Facebook request from a patient has led to unwanted amorous advances or, conversely, abuse about the standard of care they (or their loved ones) have received.

Doctors can be vulnerable to criticism of their practice through social media sites. For example, NHS Choices, iWantGreatCare and Google reviews are popular among patients wishing to comment on their healthcare experiences. Many patients choose to send feedback through sites and some comments may be negative, inaccurate or offensive, which many doctors would wish to respond to directly. Most sites set clear guidelines on what can and can't be posted. Readers who consider a post 'offensive or unsuitable' can alert a moderator who will investigate and may remove the posting.

Twitter and Facebook do not permit hate speech, threats, bullying and spam, but Facebook will only remove content that violates its terms. Dealing with criticism through a site moderator, without breaching patient confidentiality, is probably the safest way to deal with this type of feedback. Members are advised to contact us on 0800 716 646 in the first instance, before responding to comments posted online about them.

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Tips for using social media

  • Be professional at all times.
  • Maintain appropriate professional boundaries.
  • Respect patient confidentiality.
  • Take care about any personal postings of text or images on your own site or other sites.
  • Optimise the privacy settings on any personal social media site you use.
  • Avoid any dialogue with a patient through social media sites.
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This page was correct at publication on . 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.


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