Advice: Avoiding social media dangers

Hospital Doctors are increasingly using social media and smartphone apps to connect. It pays to be informed on the risks, explains MPS legal adviser Dr James Thorpe

The medical world is rapidly transforming because of the use of technology. One of the most appealing elements of smartphones for medical professionals is the range of functions they perform. However, there is a thin line between what is acceptable and what is inappropriate, and dangers are often only a thumb-swipe away. 

With many doctors now using smartphones and tablets for professional purposes, it is tempting to make use of file-sharing apps and websites to share clinical photographs with colleagues. While this may appear to be a valuable way to converse about medical conditions with other doctors or to seek another professional opinion, the medicolegal risks could outweigh the benefits. 

Recent press reports have acknowledged the widespread use of messaging services such as WhatsApp by the medical profession. Widely perceived as being an encrypted “secure” way of sharing information, it is easy to see why utilising this technology can seem more efficient than an old-fashioned pager system. However, there is always a risk that messages containing patient information are inadvertently sent to the wrong recipient or a doctor’s phone is left unlocked in a public place.

In addition, photographs sent via WhatsApp may also be automatically uploaded to an individual’s photo stream, perhaps on a desktop device to which other individuals have access. It is important to note that NHS Digital have made clear that WhatsApp should never be used to share patient information. Doctors who do so face the risk of disciplinary action and complaints in the event of a breach of data security.

Platforms like Twitter are valuable for healthcare discussions – clinicians are able to easily interact and follow leaders in any area of medicine who distribute the latest medical news and information. But Twitter must never be used to share confidential information and doctors should be mindful of the GMC’s 2013 social media guidance, which states: “If you identify yourself as a doctor in publicly accessible social media, you should also identify yourself by name.”

Social media sites blur the boundary between an individual’s public and professional life.

It is important to note that both employers and the GMC can take action in the event of an inappropriate post on Facebook.

For example, in 2009 a group of doctors and nurses were suspended for playing the “lying down game” while on night shift and posting photographs on social media.

Other doctors have been disciplined for making inappropriate comments regarding colleagues or patients.

Maintaining professional boundaries is another area where difficulties can arise for junior doctors using social media.  The GMC makes clear: “If a patient contacts you about their care or other professional matters through your private profile, you should indicate that you cannot mix social and professional relationships and, where appropriate, direct them to your professional profile.”

10 Things to Remember When Using Social Media

  1. Maintain and protect patients’ information by not publishing any information that could identify them on social media.
  2. Maintain appropriate boundaries in the relationships you have with colleagues.
  3. Comply with any internet and social media policy set out by your employer.
  4. As a clinician, you have a responsibility to behave professionally and responsibly both online and offline.
  5. Your online image can impact on your professional life and you should not post any information, including photographs and videos, that may bring the profession into disrepute. Once you post a comment or photograph online you relinquish control of that information, so think carefully before hitting send or upload.
  6. Anything you post on social media is in the public domain and can be easily copied and redistributed without your knowledge.
  7. You should presume that everything you share will be there permanently.
  8. You should regularly review your privacy settings to ensure unintended audiences do not access information. You should be aware that the default settings for Twitter are public – unlike Facebook, where members need to approve social connections.
  9. Even the strictest privacy settings do not guarantee your information will be kept secure. Both Facebook and Twitter allow various types of content to be shared beyond an individual’s network of friends.
  10. Any information you post could be viewed by anyone, including your patients, colleagues or employer.

Dr James Thorpe is a Medico-legal Adviser at Medical Protection. For more information, visit the MPS website at