Professionalism: Brexit no excuse for lowering the tone on social media

Even in the aftermath of seismic events like the Brexit vote, professional groups - including GPs - must continue to be civil on social media, argues East Lancashire GP Dr Rahul Thakur. As Britain leaves the EU, he adds, social media could offer a way to maintain bridges with Europe.

It was 8am in a hotel in the heart of Frankfurt, the financial capital of Germany, when I woke up to the most unexpected and disheartening news that our country had voted itself out of the EU. I was with four friends from the UK starting a much-awaited holiday, excited to have been welcomed into Europe.

The next morning, I felt quite the opposite. Sterling, stocks and shares went into a tailspin after the Brexit referendum. On German news channels, the BBC or TV channels from far east or west, the only news that day was about Brexit.

While this news was unfolding, social media went into a frenzy, mainly expressing shock, dismay and anger. Within minutes, among the general public the inevitable badmouthing and trolling of people from both sides of the EU debate began. Some of these conversations - but perhaps in more subtle forms - also came from professionals, including those working in the NHS.

GP social media

I am a British doctor of Indian origin, settled in the UK for 14 years. I call the UK my own country and feel British values are my own. I felt that what went on in social media that day was shameful.

What I observed prompted me to read and reflect about how professionals - including GPs - should engage with and behave on the internet.

The blurring boundaries of professionalism is a much talked-about subject after the rise in use of social media by doctors, nurses or other healthcare professionals. The GMC and the BMA tell us to maintain caution, and rightly so.

Despite its popularity, social media is still at a nascent stage, and contemporary users are on a steep learning curve. Many of us, like me, are at the very bottom of this curve.

Gone are the days when we had two lives to live, or two hats to wear - a personal and a professional one. We now have a third, which is virtual. How we wish to wear it, where and how frequently, or whether we wish to wear it at all is an individual choice.

Professional boundaries

Messages spread quicker and further in the virtual world. The new platform works faster than our brains can process, and infinitely faster than our fingers can type. The same message can win us fame, or make us infamous. That is the irony of social media.

We are doctors, and like it or not, we are perceived to be ambassadors of our profession - a profession that is unbiased, humane and not confined to the dividing boundaries of partisan politics or religion.

Sitting across the table with patients, we discuss their individual bodies or minds, not our own. So what changes suddenly when we are in front of a computer or a smartphone and speak to the world - which our patients inhabit - uninhibited and fearless and say something that we would not dare to say to a real patient?

Our country has made a choice with the Brexit referendum. It may not be my choice, or my toddler’s when she grows up, but certainly that is what the majority of us have chosen today. Whether we supported the remain or leave campaign, this is where we are and there is no other way forward than to stand together and make this decision work in our favour in the times to come.

So what if we are divorced with the EU? There is nothing that should stop us being friends with our neighbours, and this must be the starting point of all our social media engagements too. Rather than hurling abuse, let us welcome and treat our friends from the EU as we always must - with dignity and respect.

We all know that these hardworking friends and colleagues of ours have contributed immensely towards our economy - not only have they doled out large parts of their working lives for our NHS but also contributed in every other profession. If allowed, they will continue to do so. If we all concur on this, it would be heartening to see all of us on social media standing together collectively to champion respect and working to maintain bridges that seem to be breaking now.

  • Dr Rahul Thakur is a GP partner in Colne, East Lancashire, and a GPSI in diabetes. Views expressed in this article are his own.

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