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Social media for doctors keeping it professional

Social media for doctors keeping it professional


Be aware of your professional and legal obligations to ensure you make the most of social media and avoid inadvertent breaches.

30 / 06 / 2020

Quick guide

  • Professional and legal obligations apply on social media.
  • Understand the privacy settings on social media platforms and review periodically.
  • Obtain and document patient consent to use any patient information, even if it is de-identified.
  • A social media post is in existence forever. If in doubt, don’t post. 

Using social media

Social media offers hundreds of platforms, ranging from professional networking sites, social networking platforms, blogs, microblogs and content-sharing platforms. Referral tools, discussion forums, message boards and messaging platforms all fall within the broad category of social media.

It can be great for networking, establishing a professional presence and sharing information. Be aware of your professional and legal obligations to ensure you make the most of social media and avoid inadvertent breaches.

Key issues to consider:

  1. Your professional and legal obligations in your use of social media.
  2. Privacy – each platform has different privacy settings and defaults that change periodically, so review these regularly.
  3. Posts – even those you think are private, could reflect on your professional reputation if seen by a patient, colleague, employer or potential employer.
  4. If you are an employee, you are obliged to comply with your employer’s social media policies.

Legal and professional obligations

As a doctor, you are required to adhere to standards of professional behaviour primarily contained in the Medical Board of Australia’s Good Medical Practice: a code of conduct for doctors in Australia.

The code of conduct includes how doctors should use social media as well as traditional forms of communication. You are expected to conduct yourself in accordance with the responsibilities set out in the code. These include:

  • maintaining patient privacy and confidentiality
  • standards of professional behaviour
  • the way you care for and communicate with patients
  • advertising of your professional services.

Professional behaviour

Social media is designed to connect people. It often uses other platforms and internet capabilities to identify existing links between people. While you may think personal and professional personas are different, your social media profile will often connect the two. Your private actions may reflect on your public persona. Always assume that at some stage a patient or colleague will be able to see your social media posts. Consider whether you are comfortable with that before posting.

Consider who you 'friend’ or share information with on social media. Always be sure of the identity of people whose friend requests you accept. Do not accept friend requests from patients. If you do receive such a request rather than ignore it, send a polite response such as 'unfortunately due to hospital/practice policy I am unable to accept a friend request from a patient’.

Try to control when photos of you are posted. Ensure you also seek consent from anyone who is in a photo you post.

The code of conduct also includes professional obligations, for example, your responsibility to promote the health of the community through health education, disease prevention and health promotion. Posting images or comments that could be seen to endorse activities and behaviours such as excessive alcohol consumption, drug use, violence or anti-social behaviours could not only damage your professional reputation but could be in breach of your professional obligations.

You may be contacted by people seeking information or advice from you in response to your social media presence. Develop a strategy to respond to this. For example, refer them to their own treating doctor for any clinical advice in the first instance. If they ask to see you as their treating doctor and this is appropriate, ensure that a formal doctor/patient relationship is established before any treatment is provided.

Privacy and confidentiality obligations

As a general rule you have a duty of confidentiality in relation to any information about your patients.

Be very cautious about posting images of or information about patients. Never post any patient information on social media without specific consent, even if the image or information is apparently de-identified. If you do have consent, document this in the patient’s clinical records.

Be aware of inadvertent breaches of privacy and confidentiality. For example, there may be identifying information relating to patients or staff in the background of a photograph. The metadata of an image may also contain identifying information.

Be wary of platform defaults, such as granting permission to access address books, as this may allow access to confidential patient contact details. Check the terms and conditions of websites before signing up, including whether the site will access email addresses in your database.

Privacy settings

Know your audience and security settings and remember to review these regularly.

Some platforms are completely public so should be used cautiously. Even on platforms with privacy settings, certain parts of your profile, such as your name, profile photo, friends list, gender, geographic location and pages and networks to which you belong, may be publicly available and not protected.

Even if you remove content from some social platforms, copies of that information may still be viewed elsewhere if it has been shared with others. Assume that if you post something online it will become public and you may not be able to delete it. If in doubt – don’t post.

Sharing information via social apps

Sharing information, particularly with international colleagues, can provide a virtual corridor consultation with an expert or to aid in diagnosis.

If clinical images or information from a patient’s medical record are shared with colleagues for their clinical opinion, it is important to carefully record what image or information was shared to track what the opinion was based on when making recommendations for the patient’s treatment. Always seek and document permission from the patient to share their information and images with colleagues, even if you believe it has been de-identified. There have been instances of patients identifying themselves, or being identified by friends or family, from information or images posted about them.

Even in a closed group or private messenger function, the risk of breaching patient confidentiality is high with potentially serious ramifications. Images and information can become stored on a number of people’s devices and while the person who sent the message may delete it, there is no way of knowing or guaranteeing that all recipients will delete it. Given the connectivity between apps and platforms on devices, there is also the risk of an image or information being transferred inadvertently to a different app or social media platform.

Employment obligations

As an employee, for example of a hospital or at a medical centre, be aware of your employer’s social media policies. Policies will generally prohibit using social media in a way that would breach any law (including privacy, defamation, confidentiality, discrimination or harassment, intellectual property, competition and consumer laws), or that would bring your employer into disrepute. It may also prevent comment on workplace matters.

In a hospital setting clinical records and information are owned by the hospital, so even with patient consent the hospital’s policies may prohibit posting on social media. Unauthorised posting could contravene your employment obligations. Other workplaces such as medical clinics may also have social media policies or expectations, so ensure you know if this is the case and familiarise yourself with them.

Additional resources

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