Medico-legal: Are you social media savvy?

The MDU's head of advisory services, Dr Caroline Fryar, challenges GPs to test their knowledge of the pitfalls and positives of social media.

(Photo: Chesnot/Getty Images)
(Photo: Chesnot/Getty Images)

Social media can be a great way to share views and professional information but your ethical responsibilities still apply in the virtual world. Inappropriate comments, confidentiality breaches and blurred boundaries could damage your reputation and spell trouble at the GMC.

Figures reported in the BMJ, showed that the GMC closed 28 investigations related to doctors’ use of Facebook, Twitter, or WhatsApp from 1 January 2015 to 30 June 2017. Some cases resulted in action on the doctors’ registration, such as warnings, undertakings, conditions and even suspension in two cases. 

Social media e-learning

The MDU has created a new e-learning tool to help you make the most of social media in your professional life, without attracting attention for all the wrong reasons. See if you can pass the social media assessment. Register here.

For more information, visit, follow us on Twitter @the_mdu or call 0800 716 646.

This article is funded by the MDU for GP Connect

While numbers of cases resulting in disciplinary action is relatively small, it is a growing trend. A Times freedom of information request to 194 NHS trusts found that 1,200 NHS staff were disciplined between 2013 to 2018 for their use of social media or messaging apps.

The MDU regularly receives requests for advice and assistance from members with problems arising from their activity on social media, which has prompted us to produce a new interactive e-learning module.

Test your knowledge

The MDU’s 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.

Here are two conundrums to get you thinking:

  • You want advice about the best treatment options for a patient with an unusual rash so you post a query on a closed doctors forum. Several members ask for more information. Should you oblige?
  • You notice some misleading tweets about vaccinations. You tweet a link to an NHS source containing information about the spread of diseases, which you hope will help spread more factual content but this prompts some adverse comment. How should you respond?

Open to MDU members and non-members alike, the e-learning module tackles some of the common misconceptions and problems, as well as the benefits that social media can bring. Following approval from the Federation of the Royal Colleges of Physicians, users who complete the e-learning module will now receive two CPD credits.

To find the answers, register for the e-learning module here.

Here are some of the areas to be aware of when thinking about your social media use.

Protect patient confidentiality

It is a basic ethical principle that you should not disclose identifiable information about a patient without their consent. This may seem straightforward to comply with but bear in mind that even if you believe you have removed identifying information, details spread out over multiple posts could be pieced together to identify a patient.

The GMC’s guidance document, Doctors' use of social media warns doctors that they should be careful about using closed professional forums to discuss anonymised cases and ensure patients cannot be identified. Also, there is no guarantee that such forums are not accessible to the public.

Images pose particular confidentiality risks. It may be possible to recognise someone from an apparently insignificant detail so obtain the patient's prior consent and do everything possible to protect their confidentiality.

Maintain professional boundaries

It may be flattering to receive a friend request but think carefully before accepting one from a patient. 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'.

Treat others with respect

It can be tempting to let off steam online but the GMC warns that you must treat colleagues with respect and that: 'You must not bully, harass or make gratuitous, unsubstantiated or unsustainable comments about individuals online'. As several high-profile personalities have found to their cost, online posts are still subject to the laws of copyright and defamation.

Maintain public confidence in the profession

An ill-considered comment, an unprofessional selfie, 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.

Be secure

You should regularly review the privacy settings for each of your social media profiles and restrict access to your personal accounts. However, bear in mind the GMC’s warning that: 'Social media sites cannot guarantee confidentiality whatever privacy settings are in place'. Content that has been shared can be difficult to remove and may spread outside your control.

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