CONCERNS have been raised that doctors’ freedom of expression could be restricted by new social media guidance from the General Medical Council.
The new guidelines state that doctors writing on social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, should use their own name rather than using a pen name. Some critics fear it could spell the end of anonymous bloggers within the profession.
Doctors’ use of social media, which came into effect on April 22, states: “If you identify yourself as a doctor in publicly accessible social media, you should also identify yourself by name. Any material written by authors who represent themselves as doctors is likely to be taken on trust and may reasonably be taken to represent the views of the profession more widely.”
Dr Jonathon Tomlinson who blogs about health reform under his own name and tweets @mellojonny, told GP that while he was in a secure position as a GP partner, he could not be as outspoken using his own name if he were a junior doctor.
He added: “I do think that someone claiming to be a doctor who puts the profession in disrepute by virtue of their behaviour ought to be held responsible, but I do not think it follows from this that they need to use their real name.”
The GMC has since moved to reassure doctors after more than 4,000 people signed an online petition against the “draconian restrictions”.
In a post on Facebook, head of the GMC’s standards and ethics Jane O’Brien acknowledged the “lively” response from the profession but insisted the regulator was not restricting doctors’ right to express their views.
She said the guidance “describes good practice, not minimum standards. It’s not a set of rules”, adding that failure to identify yourself online would not in itself raise questions over fitness to practise. Doctors were free to express their opinions except where this would breach patient confidentiality and in cases of bullying or malicious comments about colleagues.
She added: “One of the key messages in the guidance is that although social media changes the means of communication, the standards expected of doctors do not change when communicating on social media rather than face to face.”
The GMC said that while it is good practice for doctors to identify themselves when commenting on healthcare issues, it has “no interest in doctors’ use of social media in their personal lives” such as tweets, blogs and Facebook.
It added that it would not encourage doctors to raise concerns over patient safety online because it was not private and could be missed by those able to take action.