Social media: what does it mean for you?

Use of social media has exploded in the past decade, providing a quick and easy way for us to communicate better with one another.

Craig MacLean, a second year medical student at Dundee University and Deputy Chair of the British Medical Association (BMA) Scottish Medical Students’ Committee, is an avid user and advocate of social media. ‘It involves use of both web-based and mobile technology to transform what would be just normal communication into a conversation, which is interactive and immediate,’ he enthuses.

Medical students can benefit from social media

Social media is widely used to supplement medical education and training. For example, Craig uses Clinical Skills Online to brush up on his practical skills by watching how to give a patient an abdominal or cardiovascular examination. ‘It’s one thing to sit and try to learn the steps of an examination from a page,’ says Craig, ‘but quite another when you can watch it and see a doctor demonstrate it at 3 in the morning.’

Craig has been working closely with the BMA to set up a Facebook group for students. Social networking sites can help year groups to get to know one another, post information about upcoming events, or pose questions to their classmates. ‘It’s not expert opinion and it’s not a substitute for it, but it’s connecting the year at a level of communication that everybody uses,’ Craig explains.

Dundee medical school has also recently switched to a new system – MedBlogs – allowing students to interact with staff.

‘I certainly think medical education is at the forefront of driving [social media in medicine] forward,’ says Craig. 

Social media can have a place in doctors’ work

Social media is gradually finding a role in doctors’ daily practice. ‘It’s an additional way to communicate with our colleagues and to share ideas, research and personal viewpoints with others, outside of working hours,’ says Craig.

Many organisations, such as the GMC and the BMA, politicians, and medical journals are actively using social media, and there are already several online medical communities available. So, social media can help doctors stay up to date.

Inappropriate use of social media can have serious implications

Even if you have adjusted your privacy settings, you need to be careful what you are publishing. ‘Never underestimate who can see your post and how quickly it can spread,’ warns Craig. Three major issues you need to think about are patient confidentiality, consent to publish details about patients and respecting your colleagues. You should follow our guidance on these issues to make sure that you are not publishing inappropriate information that could damage your credibility as a doctor.

Inappropriate use of social media can raise questions about your suitability to become a doctor, which could result in your medical school launching a fitness to practise investigation into your conduct. Your medical school is not allowed to let you graduate if you are not fit to practise. This is a last resort and would only happen in the most serious of cases.

‘If you’re thinking as a professional now, the chances are you’ll practise this as a doctor,’ Craig suggests.

Where should you draw the line?

As a student, you should apply our guidance on medical students’ professional values and fitness to practise when you are using social media.

As future doctors, medical students have certain responsibilities and standards of professional behaviour that are expected of them, which are different from those of other students. Craig’s advice is: ‘In general, keep your most personal details and pictures private only to friends but still think about what’s appropriate to put next to your name. For public posts, think if you’d be happy for your patients or family to view them.’

Advice on how to use social media is growing – in the past year, the BMA, Nursing and Midwifery Council, and the Australian Medical Association have all published guidance for the health profession. In the coming months, we will be consulting on draft guidance for doctors on use of social media, which will be interesting to you as future doctors. We will let you know when this is published so you can have your say.

Craig is keen that future guidelines on social media for medics should not just outline the potential pitfalls of social media, but encourage students and doctors alike to access its benefits by showing them how to use it effectively. He is currently working with staff at Dundee University to draft guidelines for medical students to encourage correct use of social media.

Social media is here to stay

We are keen to use social media to work more closely with medical students and doctors – you can now find us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter @gooddoctoruk, and watch our videos on YouTube.

Craig has also provided some key points to remember to help you use social media effectively.