GPs must observe 'Wild West' rules in new online world, RCGP warns

GPs' behaviour online should be governed by principles similar to 'the unwritten code adopted by cowboys in the newly discovered frontier of the Wild West', draft RCGP guidance on social media says.

Dr Clare Gerada: social media opens up new lines of communication with patients
Dr Clare Gerada: social media opens up new lines of communication with patients

Honesty, hospitality, fair play, loyalty, trust, consideration and respect are 'enduring' principles that should govern doctors' behaviour, and must simply be applied in the new online world, according to the RCGP's draft Social Media Highway Code.

The college is developing the code as ‘a practical and encouraging guide’ for doctors who
use social media and want to ensure they get the most out of their online communications, while ensuring they meet their professional obligations and protect their patients.

The guidance highlights research that found many doctors were unaware of guidance on social media and had observed colleagues behaving inappropriately online.

It warns GPs to be aware that personal and professional identities online cannot always be separated, and that they must proactively manage 'the image you present online'. GPs should respect patients' privacy online, give insights but be wary of giving personal advice and intervene when they spot colleagues behaving inappropriately.

A panel discussion at this week's RCGP conference in Glasgow is being combined with an online Twitter chat on the issues doctors face concerning social media, featuring GP social media enthusiasts Professor Clare Gerada and Dr Margaret McCartney. The chat takes place on Friday 5 October at 12 noon under the #RCGPac conference hashtag.

As RCGP chairwoman, Professor Gerada, who has more than 10,000 followers on Twitter, has helped write the code. ‘Social media will fundamentally change the way we interact with patients, for the better,' she said. 'These tools provide us with exciting and clever new opportunities to communicate with and help our patients, but we must also discuss how we balance the risks against the opportunities and encourage doctors to use them, and use them appropriately.’

The social media guide is being developed in conjunction with Doctors.net.uk, the online forum for doctors.

Dr Ben Riley, the lead author of the code and a GP in Oxfordshire, said: ‘The same professional challenges we learn to manage every day as doctors, around issues like respecting patient privacy and maintaining appropriate boundaries, also apply when using social media.

‘But there is a need for more practical advice to help healthcare professionals make these judgments in the new and fast-moving world of social media – which is why we produced the code.’

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