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The potential perils of social media

Portfolio politics

Louise Newson

Monday, 30 October 2017

GP_AdobeStock_86186400_v2.jpgIncreasingly we are using social media to communicate to friends, colleagues, patients and also to people we do not even know. My teenage children have taught me the benefits (and risks) of using Instagram which can be a really useful platform to educate and inform people about clinical conditions.

This week’s edition of The BMJ contains a really useful article* about how using social media can have a negative effect on your career.

From 1 January 2015 to 30 June 2017 the General Medical Council (GMC) closed 28 investigations which were related to doctors’ use of Facebook, Twitter or WhatsApp. This number is likely to increase in the future.

The GMC and BMA have issued guidance on the use of social media. However, many doctors are still unaware of the content of these guidelines. We have to be very careful when posting in private groups and also sharing images in slides. Doctors should never be using WhatsApp to send patient data.

If there is a GMC investigation regarding social media use, then the GMC may refer the individual case for a fitness to practise hearing.

Even using apps in the past and deleting them can still be a problem. This article highlights the potential case of a person who has used a dating app like Tinder or Grindr in the past. When that person then wants to work in a country such as United Arab Emirates then it is possible to reveal that this person has used these apps in the past when they work in more conservative countries.

Using clinical images for educational purposes can be problematic. For example, if the image was taken with a smart phone it will have metadata embedded in it to say when and where the images were taken so could lead to a breach of patient confidentiality. It is very important that the metadata is taken out first and patients have written consent for agreeing the images to be used.

Even with the patient's consent, using an Apple phone can be problematic because the images are being streamed automatically to the US into the Apple iCloud. Any clinical images taken should be kept secure and encrypted.

It is very important that we do not become involved in online discussions about patients or anything professional, even with private accounts. In addition, it is important that doctors do not accept Facebook friend requests from patients or close work colleagues.

Social media should not be used for raising concerns or for whistleblowing, which sounds very obvious, but this has occurred in the past. Finally, before we dispose of any old devices we need to be completely confident that we have cleaned them fully.

Social media is certainly something that was not around when I was at medical school and my learning curve regarding this has been huge. It is so easy to post something when you are distracted or slightly tired and the consequences of making a mistake can be huge. We can all certainly learn and benefit from reading this article.


* Rimmer A. Hidden risks your smartphone poses to your career. BMJ 2017;359:j48. DOI: 10.1136/bmj.j4896

Author's Image

Louise Newson

Louise is a part-time GP in Solihull, as well as a writer for numerous medical publications, including www.patient.info. She is an Editor and Reviewer for e-learning courses for the RCGP. She is an Editor for Geriatric Medicine journal and the British Journal of Family Medicine. Louise has contributed to various healthcare articles in many different newspapers and magazines and is the spokesperson for The Information Standard. She has also done television and radio work. Louise is a medical consultant for Maverick TV and has participated regularly in ‘Embarrassing Bodies Live from the Clinic’. Louise has three young children and is married to a consultant urological surgeon. Although her spare time is limited she enjoys practising ashtanga yoga regularly and loves road cycling – she has raised over £2K for a local charity, Molly Olly Wishes by competing in a 120km cycle ride!
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