Breaching confidentiality with selfies


Selfie - Pron: /selfi/ (also selfy) noun (plural selfies) informal - a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.

Dr Richenda Tisdale, MDU medico-legal adviser, explains how the trend for taking selfies in a variety of locations could land doctors and medical students in jeopardy.

It may have come as little surprise that the Oxford English Dictionary declared 'selfie' the word of the year in 2013. The word has been used online for around a decade, and has become increasingly widespread over the course of the last couple of years.

No longer the preserve of teenagers and reality TV stars, 2013 brought us selfies featuring world leaders, the royal family and the Pope.

With the apparent acceptability of the selfie and its offshoots including the welfie (a workout selfie), drelfie (a drunken selfie) and the belfie (don't go there), it can be easy to be sucked into a competition to out-do one another on social websites.

You may be tempted to take a selfie at work, posing next to an entertaining x-ray, the gallstones you have just removed, or a patient recovering from an operation, but we advise you to resist doing so.

Even if you do not share the images online, you could find yourself in breach of GMC guidance on confidentiality, trust policy and data protection legislation.

Images that are shared on social media could be seen by people outside of your group of friends and followers. It is worth considering what your patients or colleagues would think of a selfie showing inappropriate behaviour.

We are aware of complaints and disciplinary proceedings arising out of images taken and stored on camera phones, and photographs shared online.

Our advice to members who wish to take photographs or recordings of themselves or of patients to share online is as follows.

Be cautious about posting anything that may bring the profession into disrepute.

  • Be professional in your comments, especially about patients or colleagues.
  • Be aware that anything you upload on to a social networking site may be distributed further than you intended.
  • When taking photos of a patient as part of their care or in an anonymised form for teaching or research purposes, you will need to get specific consent from the patient. You should explain why the recording is needed, and how it may be used and stored.
  • Specific consent is not necessary to record certain clinical images, such as x-rays and images of pathology slides, but you should explain to patients, where practical, that the recording may be used in anonymised form for other healthcare purposes such as teaching.
  • Think carefully before using a mobile phone or tablet computer to take and store clinical images. The image may fall into the wrong hands and the device should be protected with encryption software. Ensure your settings don't allow images to be uploaded to the internet automatically.
  • Guard against improper disclosure of recordings made as part of patient care in the same way as you would medical records.

This article originally appeared in the printed edition of wardround April 2014 entitled "The age of the #selfie".

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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.