GMC social media advice 'does not restrict free speech'

GMC social media guidance does not restrict doctors' freedom of speech, the regulator has said.

GMC: social media advice warns against online anonymity for doctors
GMC: social media advice warns against online anonymity for doctors

The guidance, which comes into effect on 22 April, suggested doctors should not blog or tweet anonymously.

‘If you identify yourself as a doctor in publicly accessible social media, you should also identify yourself by name,' the guidance said.

The regulator sought to clarify its position after almost 4,000 people signed an online petition against the 'draconian restrictions'. Some opponents claimed it could restrict GPs’ ability to speak out online about health reforms or patient care.

GP blogger, The Jobbing Doctor said they would not follow the guidance: ‘It is a matter of principle that the GMC have no right to tell me what to do outside of my work environment.'

Dr Jonathon Tomlinson who blogs about health reform under his own name, said while he was in a secure position as a GP partner, he could not be as outspoken using his own name if he were a junior doctor.

RCGP chair Professor Clare Gerada, speaking before the GMC issued its clarification, told GP she was concerned GMC should not be trying to control doctors’ lives outside the surgery.

Professor Gerada, who recently co-authored the college’s own Social Media Highway Code, said while online anonymity was not ideal, there were circumstances where it could be necessary.

‘I think to set doctors outside the rest of the population is unfair’, she said. ‘We are not children. That’s what I worry about; it is assuming that doctors can’t make a decision’.

Jane O’Brien, head of standards and ethics at the GMC, acknowledged the ‘lively response’ from the profession, but emphasised the guidance described best practice, not minimum standards, and that failure to identify yourself online would not in itself raise questions over fitness to practice. The guidance did not restrict doctors’ freedom of expression, Ms O’Brien said, except where patient confidentiality or issues of harassment were concerned.

‘One of the key messages in the guidance is that although social media changes the means of communication, the standards expected of doctors do not change when communicating on social media rather than face to face.’

GMC said while it was good practice for doctors to identify themselves when commenting on medical issues online, it had ‘no interest in doctors’ use of social media in their personal lives’. It added that it would not encourage doctors to raise concerns over patient safety online because it was not private and could be missed by those able to take action.

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