Doctors’ use of social media

As part of the consultation on our explanatory guidance from April to June 2012, Dr Anne-Marie Cunningham (@amcunningham), a GP and Clinical Lecturer at Cardiff University, wrote on the role of social media in doctors’ lives.

More than half the UK population now use Facebook. And more new users are over 50 rather than under 50. The dominance of Facebook means that if you are not there you are likely to miss out on what is happening with your family or friends. For most of us our use of Facebook has nothing to do with being a doctor. It is about being a mother, nephew, or friend. And it is because we want to protect these people that we care about, and ourselves, that we check our privacy settings and make sure that we are not publishing photos of our nearest and dearest to the world.

So if most of our social media use is about who we are when we are not at work do we need guidance from the GMC? What does using social media have to do with being a doctor at all?

Useful guidance or ‘moral panic’?

Some might think that the development of this guidance is a response to a near moral panic about what may be seen as the portrayal of unprofessional behaviour by doctors and medical students in their use of Facebook and other social networking sites. Breaking patient confidentiality is always wrong but these days what does it take to reduce trust in ourselves or the medical profession? Research seems to indicate that the main determinant of trust in doctors is their interaction with patients in consultations. Patients value doctors who listen to them and take their concerns seriously. They trust them. So are we worrying excessively about how the public may respond to the depiction of minor misdemeanours and hijinx which may not reflect how well an individual will carry out their professional role?

Blurred boundaries

In the past, the private life of a doctor living in a small community may have been well known to her patients. Social media facilitates this same kind of blurring of boundaries. We all have to consider how much of our private and personal lives should be revealed to the public and patients. Will ‘professional distance’ be a meaningful or helpful term in the 21st century? Medical decision making is no longer seen as objective and the role of the doctor, but as a shared task with the patient which acknowledges their values and subjectivities. Might this process be helped or hindered if patients understood our values and subjectivities too?

Doctors may also choose to use new technologies to interact with patients. What then are our responsibilities? As we have a duty to protect patients’ confidentiality we must assure ourselves of the appropriateness of any communications platform. If there are risks then we must make these clear to patients.

The importance of maintaining trust

We might also use social media to connect with other professionals. There can be many benefits to opening up the flow of knowledge within networks. Again, discussing the details of any clinical case should be done with patient consent. In the past when considering if a patient may be identifiable we tended to focus on whether others would be able to recognise the individual concerned. But if discussing a case in near real-time in a public space we have to consider whether the patient will be able to identify themselves even if no one else can. Without their explicit permission, this in itself may reduce trust in us as practitioners.

Looking forward

Will social media have a major impact on the practice of medicine? We do not know yet, but the pace of change is rapid. It took 100 years from invention of the telephone for it to reach 50% of UK households in the mid-1970s. Has the telephone radically changed medical practice? Facebook reached 50% of the UK population in 5 years. Will it be a more powerful disruptor?

When discussing technological change we have to remember that social divides also exist. Julian Tudor Hart coined the phrase the ‘inverse care law’ for his observation that those who most need good medical or social care are least likely to get it. The digital divide describes inequalities in access to information and communication technologies. In 2011, 99% of those with a household income above £40,000 had internet access, whilst only 43% of those with household income below £12,500 did. The gaps are narrowing, but if we change our practices we need to consider how the digital divide will impact on access for the poorest, and most vulnerable.

So do we need guidance on the use of social media and networks? If the publication gives us cause to reflect on how use of these technologies fit with our professional roles and our professional practice then this can only be a good thing.

Anne-Marie Cunningham

April 2012


Read the new guidance on Doctor's use of social media (pdf).