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Protect patients when using social media

Never convey confidential information even via ‘private’ messages

Louise Prime

Thursday, 21 March 2013

The Royal College of General Practitioners has issued guidance on safely navigating the potentially thorny area of social media. The guide shows doctors in the UK how to get the most out of Twitter, Facebook and other social media channels, and use them to communicate effectively with colleagues and the public, while still protecting their patients and themselves.

The College says its Social Media Highway Code is the “first ever practical guide to help UK doctors navigate their way around the ethical and confidentiality dilemmas of social media”. It is not designed to impose rules on doctors’ online behaviour, but just to “highlight where doctors need to exercise caution based on past experience”.

It collates practical advice from doctors, nurses, journalists, lawyers, students and patients in the form of a 10-point plan. Advice includes:

  • generally, if you portray yourself as a registered doctor or post in a professional capacity, you should usually identify yourself openly with your professional name – using a pseudonym does not provide reliable anonymity for you or your patients, especially over the longer term, and will not protect you from disciplinary action in the event of a complaint
  • make sure you understand the limitations of privacy and profile settings, and never rely on a ‘secure’ message to convey confidential information
  • respect the privacy of all patients, especially the vulnerable
  • show your human side, but maintain professional boundaries.

It specifically addresses the problem of dealing with public and patients who approach doctors for advice through social media. It recommends: “Avoid giving personalised advice to members of the public through social media tools – general comments and signposting to authoritative and appropriate sources of information are generally fine, but do not be tempted into giving online consultations.”

But it goes on: “Occasionally you may receive an urgent request for help from a patient that requires an immediate response. As with all ‘Good Samaritan’ acts, you must act in the best interests of the patient and follow your professional obligations as a doctor.”

The RCGP worked with Doctors.net.uk and LimeGreen Media in producing the Code, which is co-authored by its curriculum director Dr Ben Riley and chair Dr Clare Gerada. Following feedback on an earlier draft, the guide now includes more information for GPs working in the Armed Forces and controlled environments, as well as more on the extra responsibilities that doctors can hold as ‘data controllers’.

Dr Riley said: “There are many opportunities for GPs and other healthcare professionals to take the lead in developing how social media can be used to improve healthcare. At the same time healthcare professionals need to protect their patients and support each other with using these new ways of communicating. The Code has a practical focus and addresses a number of the challenging areas that GPs and other healthcare professionals have been asking about for some time.”

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