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Medico-legal helpline

0800 716 646

Using social media

disclosure on social media

17 March 2017

  • Be professional at all times.
  • Maintain appropriate professional boundaries.
  • Take care not to breach patient confidentiality.
  • Respect patients and colleagues in your comments.
  • Follow GMC guidance Doctors' use of social media (2013).

The ethical principles that apply in your professional interactions also apply to social media. Many people may see what you post, and not necessarily those you intended to see it. Once posted, content can be very difficult to remove.

Definition of social media

Any online interaction that involves a conversation, participation, sharing content or networking, may be defined as social media.

Examples:

  • social networking (eg Facebook)
  • blogs and microblogs (eg Twitter)
  • content sharing (eg Instagram, Tumblr, YouTube)
  • membership or interest groups (eg doctors.net).

Areas of potential medico-legal difficulty

Privacy

Social media sites cannot guarantee privacy, however secure your privacy settings.

Your pages, sites, blogs, feeds, online discussions and comments may be read by people you may prefer didn't see them. Patients, employers, colleagues, national media and regulatory bodies, for example.

Before posting, consider how you would feel if a colleague or patient saw what you had written, or if it was shared to a wider audience.

If you share a photo, your location may be automatically embedded. This may not be ideal in all circumstances.

You should review the privacy settings for each of your social media profiles regularly.

Confidentiality

The principles of confidentiality apply whether you are communicating offline or online.

Social media should not be used to discuss individual patients, living or dead. Posting details of a clinical case, however heavily anonymised, without patient consent would constitute a breach of confidentiality – as would sharing a photograph of a patient's condition.

Professional sites (eg doctors.net) allow exchange of information between doctors. In discussing a case anonymously, it may be possible for someone to piece together details that identify the patient.

Even a closed group may have hundreds, if not thousands, of members – which means there can be a risk of another member sharing your post outside of the group. Keep in mind also that, although some professional sites are intended solely for doctors, it is possible that not everyone on these sites is a medical professional. 

When you post personal comments on social media (say, about your working day), be aware of how your comments may be viewed by colleagues or patients, and whether you are revealing confidential information. Most breaches of confidentiality happen inadvertently.

Maintaining boundaries

For doctors, the boundaries between personal and professional use of social media can blur. Your behaviour and relationships with patients online should be no different from how you would behave towards them in person.

Patients may, for example, send a friend request to your personal Facebook page. You should politely and clearly explain to them that this is not appropriate and, if relevant, direct them to your professional profile.

For more information, see our guide to maintaining patient boundaries.

Respect for colleagues

The GMC's guidance, Good medical practice requires you to treat colleagues fairly and with respect. You should not harass, bully or make unsubstantiated comments about colleagues online. Similarly, you should not libel or defame any individual or organisation.

Anonymity

If you identify yourself as a doctor on a publicly accessible social media site, you should also give your name. If you would not make a comment in your professional life offline, social media is not a platform for doing so anonymously.

Conflicts of interest

You should be open about any conflicts of interest that may apply when posting online, such as financial or commercial interests in healthcare organisations.

Images and videos

Images or audio-visual recordings can only be used if you have the patient's written consent to the specific use. It is possible that images and recordings posted online may be re-used in a different context.

If a patient complains about you on social media

Patients are increasingly turning to social media to criticise doctors. Think carefully before responding and avoid getting drawn into a 'war of words' online. Dealing with criticism through a site moderator, without breaching patient confidentiality, is probably the safest way to deal with this type of feedback.

Our press office can advise you on responding appropriately. Contact number 020 7202 1535 or 020 7202 1504.

For expert advice relating to your individual circumstances, please call the MDU advisory helpline 0800 716 646.

Sources of guidance

This guidance was correct at publication on 17/03/2017. It 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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