Social media and messaging apps - medico-legal advice for GPs

Even doctors' private messages on social media platforms such as WhatsApp could face scrutiny from the GMC if they are perceived as unprofessional, Medical Protection's Dr Gabrielle Pendlebury and Ceylan Simsek explain.

(Photo: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
(Photo: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Many GPs may not be aware that they could face scrutiny by the regulator should private messages, including those exchanged via a social media platform such as WhatsApp, be viewed and perceived as unprofessional, offensive or inappropriate by others.

According to the GMC, the standards expected of doctors do not change because they are communicating through social media rather than face to face or through other traditional media, but new challenges can arise.

A BMJ freedom of information request to the GMC identified that between 1 January 2015 and 30 June 2017 the regulator closed 28 investigations on doctors’ use of social media. Fourteen cases were closed without further action, and a further four were closed with advice issued to the doctor.

Of those which progressed further, three doctors received a warning from the GMC, three were referred to their employers and two doctors had their registration suspended. In a further case, the registrant agreed an undertaking about their future practice, and in another, the doctor was issued with a condition on their registration.

Investigations involved various social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and in one case both Twitter and Facebook.

GMC guidance

GMC guidance on use of all social media advises doctors that confidentiality cannot be guaranteed whatever privacy settings are in place, and that whatever you post could be visible to your patients, colleagues, employers and the regulator.

It warns that photographs may contain embedded information on location which others could view, and that once material is published online it is difficult to remove, can be forwarded by viewers or commented on in a disparaging way.

This advice follows GMC’s Good Medical Practice which sates:

65 You must make sure that your conduct justifies your patients’ trust in you and the public’s trust in the profession.

69 When communicating publicly, including speaking to or writing in the media, you must maintain patient confidentiality. You should remember when using social media that communications intended for friends or family may become more widely available.

Damage to professional image

Being mindful of the above guidance regarding private messaging platforms, will also mitigate against the risk associated with the posting of what could be considered unprofessional content on public social media platforms.

Humour in the form of memes and comments on Twitter, for example, can be easily misinterpreted and reflect unfavourably on individuals and their affiliated institutions. Postings convey information about the poster’s personality, values, and priorities, and the first impression generated by this content can be lasting.

Other missteps by doctors on public social media platforms have included posting photos taken during surgery, posing with weapons or alcohol, airing frustrations that have proved offensive or harmful to a colleague or department, and the use of discriminatory or sexualised language.

It is always worthwhile considering before you post or write something – on both private and public social media platforms – how it may be perceived out of context or in the context of a practising medical professional. It may be helpful to assume that patients, relatives, colleagues, and even the regulator may read the posts.

Useful tips

The RCGP has produced a useful ‘social media highway code’, which includes the following tips:

  1. Be aware of the image you present online and manage this proactively
  2. Recognise that the personal and professional can’t always be separated
  3. Engage with the public but be cautious of giving personal advice
  4. Respect the privacy of all patients, especially the vulnerable
  5. Show your human side, but maintain professional boundaries
  6. Contribute your expertise, insights and experience
  7. Treat others with consideration, politeness and respect
  8. Remember that other people may be watching you
  9. Support your colleagues and intervene when necessary
  10. Test out innovative ideas, learn from mistakes – and have fun!

If you have any concerns, contact your medical defence organisation, for advice.

  • Dr Gabrielle Pendlebury, Medicolegal Consultant at Medical Protection and Ceylan Simsek, Case Manager at Medical Protection

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