Professional pitfalls in social media use

Risk adviser Kay Louise Grant highlights the importance of being aware of professional expectations on how we behave online

  • Date: 23 August 2022

SOCIAL media is now a part of all our lives – whether we use it directly or are affected by how it acts to spread ideas and information.

Dentists use social media for a variety of reasons, from personal interactions with friends and family to professional purposes, such as networking with colleagues or keeping up to date with your organisation or wider networks. Whatever the reason, it is important to be aware that there are expectations on how dentists should behave online.

Recently, the General Medical Council (GMC) launched a new social media page on its ethical hub, which aims to "better understand the key issues and challenges faced by the profession when using social media".

While the new resource is aimed at doctors, much of the advice is relevant for dentists, who may also wish to review their social media use in line with the General Dental Council’s (GDC):

Identifying yourself by name

Members of the public seeking healthcare information online are often exposed to inaccurate and sometimes dangerous information, especially when certain information presented as ‘fact’ provokes an emotional response, for example controversy over Covid-19 vaccination.

The GMC guidance reiterates the importance of doctors identifying themselves online by name if they are interacting and commenting on health or healthcare issues. This means stating who they are and not posting or commenting under an alias. Such good practice will add “value and credibility” to what they are saying, and the public are more likely to trust them as a clinician when comments about health or healthcare matters are attributed.

The GMC advises that doctors do not have to identify themselves if discussing matters unrelated to their professional role, but they should “use your judgment about when your role as a doctor affects how the information you share is perceived”.

The GDC’s social media guidance reminds dentists: “Posting information under another username does not guarantee your confidentiality. Even if you do not identify yourself as a dental professional, you must still follow the standards and this guidance when using social media.”

Expressing opinions

Healthcare professionals are entitled to their personal views and may wish to comment on issues or express certain opinions online, but both regulators highlight the importance of considering how your views and opinions may impact wider public trust in the profession.

The GDC’s social media guidance states: “You should not post any information, including personal views, or photographs and videos, which could damage public confidence in you as a dental professional.”

Maintaining private and professional boundaries

The GDC says dentists should “think carefully before accepting friend requests from patients”, while the GMC advises doctors against being connected with patients on social media platforms as “it can cause social and professional boundaries to become unclear”.

Clinicians are therefore advised not to have patients as ’friends’ or ‘followers’ on personal social media platforms, although working in remote areas with smaller communities may make this difficult to avoid. Members can contact MDDUS for specific advice.

Privacy settings

Health professionals can help reduce the risk of blurring personal and professional boundaries online by maintaining and adjusting privacy settings. Some platforms allow you to hide your profile from the view of those you are not already connected with. However, this cannot be relied upon and you are still expected to maintain professionalism online even with privacy settings in place.

GMC guidance reminds doctors that anyone is able to screenshot and share material out of context and “content designed to be seen by only a few individuals can become more widely available”.

The GDC warns dentists that “even the strictest privacy settings do not guarantee that your information will be kept secure. Ultimately, any information that you post could be viewed by anyone including your patients, colleagues or employer.”

Take time to review your social media settings and regularly maintain passwords to prevent unauthorised access.

Protecting patient confidentiality online

Healthcare professionals may use social media to share information on the care of individual patients in order to seek advice and also for training and educational purposes. The GDC recognises that online discussion about anonymised patients and best practice can have an educational and professional benefit.

Both GDC and GMC guidance reminds clinicians that it is essential to anonymise such information to protect patient confidentiality. However, that in itself may not be sufficient. The GDC points out that individual pieces of information may not breach confidentiality but “a number of pieces of patient information published online could be enough to identify them or someone close to them.”

The GDC’s Standards guidance (4.2.3) adds: “You must not post any information or comments about patients on social networking or blogging sites. If you use professional social media to discuss anonymised cases for the purpose of discussing best practice you must be careful that the patient or patients cannot be identified.”

Falling foul of this is not only contrary to regulatory guidance, but could also be a breach of the Data Protection Act 2018. Care must be taken to completely anonymise patient information in cases without explicit consent to disclose that information online.

Read more about anonymising data in the ICO’s (Information Commissioner’s Office) code of practice.

Using instant messaging apps

The use of instant messaging apps in the workplace has increased during the pandemic, as it is a quick and efficient way to stay connected with colleagues. The GMC recognises this but advises that instant messaging should only be used if practical alternatives are unavailable.

Healthcare professionals using instant messaging to communicate about patient care should “safeguard confidentiality, keep patient records accurate and updated, and consider the information you share”.

Dentists should ensure they follow GDC Standards guidance on protecting patient information (principle 4).

Online misinformation

The updated GMC advice highlights the importance of ensuring any information shared – online or offline – is accurate and reminds doctors not to be tempted to comment on areas outside their scope of practice. Dentists are advised by the GDC to be mindful of their obligation to work within their knowledge, skills, professional competence and abilities (principle 7).

Action points

  • Consider how you represent yourself on social media channels and whether you need to change your approach to ensure compliance with GDC guidance.
  • Review your social media privacy settings.
  • Review and exercise caution in your use of messaging apps.
  • Consider attending an MDDUS course: Professionalism: fulfilling your duties as a dentist
  • Access MDDUS on-demand webinars available free to members (login required): Social media risks for dentists
  • Contact for more detailed advice.

This page was correct at the time of publication. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.

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