Dr Sally Old, Medico-Legal Adviser at the Medical Defence Union, investigates important issues for the sector to consider when using social media.

At the Medical Defence Union (MDU), we regularly advise members on how to appropriately respond to issues arising from their activity on social media.

Used appropriately, social media is an effective tool to market yourself and your practice, communicate with other medical professionals, and makes it easier for patients to access healthcare information.

However, misguided online behaviour such as a provocative image or a poorly-worded tweet can result in social media becoming a minefield for medical professionals.

With this in mind, the MDU has just launched a new interactive e-learning module which is designed to help medical professionals maximise the benefits of using social media and appreciate its pitfalls while continuing to meet ethical and legal obligations.

The e-learning module features fictional social media scenarios that are based on common member queries and concerns, from interactions with patients and colleagues, to your professional image online.

Available to MDU members and non-members, the e-learning module tackles some of the common misconceptions and problems, as well as the benefits that social media can bring. Register for the e-learning module at www.themdu.com/learn-and-develop/social-media-e-learning.

However, in the meantime, here are some key issues to consider when using social media:

Maintain Patient Confidentiality

The rules of confidentiality apply as much when posting online as they do to when you are chatting to a friend or family member.

In Doctors’ Use of Social Media (2013), the General Medical Council (GMC) states that ‘although individual pieces of information may not breach confidentiality on their own, the sum of published information online could be enough to identify a patient or someone close to them.     You must not use publicly accessible social media to discuss individual patients or their care with those patients or anyone else.’

It’s important to remember that when something is shared publicly through social media, it may not just be the patient and their friends and family who see it, but also employers, colleagues, national media, and regulatory bodies. This is the case, even if you are on a ‘closed’ professional forum.

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.

Remain Professional

Beware publishing comments which can appear unprofessional. It may be tempting to use social media to discuss something that happened at work but you can never be sure that others will share your opinions and your comments can also be taken out of context. The GMC guidance on social media states, ‘You must not bully, harass or make gratuitous, unsubstantiated or unsustainable comments about individuals online.’

Additionally, an unprofessional selfie or even the groups you join could harm your reputation and damage public trust in the profession so think twice before you post.

The GMC advises doctors to give their name if they identify themselves as a doctor in publicly accessible social media and be open about conflicts of interest, such as having a financial stake in healthcare organisations or pharmaceutical and biomedical companies.

Respect boundaries

Also, be careful about which friend requests you accept. If a patient contacts you about their care or other professional matters through your private profile, the GMC advises you to ‘indicate that you cannot mix social and professional relationships and, where appropriate, direct them to your professional profile’.

Protect your Personal Security

Highly personal information is often accessible via social media for others to view even if you set your social media profile to private. As such, people have been caught out by security settings that have changed or require updates. Consequently, it is worth regularly reviewing the privacy settings for each of your social media profiles.

Social media can be a beneficial communication tool but remember not to take risks online that you would not take in the practice. The MDU recommends that you think carefully before you post.

For more information, visit www.themdu.com or follow them on Twitter: @the_mdu.