THE number of doctors seeking advice on the use of social media has jumped 74 per cent in the past year, MDDUS has revealed.
The UK-wide medical defence organisation reported a large increase in advice calls between 2013 and 2014. While a small part of the rise could be attributed to a growth in membership, MDDUS said it now receives four times as many social media-related calls compared to 2011.
Medical adviser Dr Naeem Nazem warned that doctors who interact with patients on sites like Facebook and Twitter risk blurring the boundaries of the professional relationship. “Social media offers a platform for doctors to network effectively and develop their own knowledge and expertise,” he said.
“However, the rise of social media has created some serious ethical challenges for doctors and their relationship with patients. We have handled a number of cases where doctors have sought advice from us regarding social media issues, including patients posting critical or abusive comments.
“Doctors must keep their relationship with patients professional at all times. Accepting a Facebook friend request from a patient or commenting on a post risks blurring the boundaries between a professional and personal relationship. As a consequence, doctors may find that their ability to make objective judgements in clinical situation is affected.”
Dr Nazem warned doctors that they are “never off duty” and their status in the public eye “demands a high standard of conduct at all times.
“By interacting with patients online, doctors are exposing themselves to be scrutinised from their own homes,” he said.
Patient confidentiality can also be at risk when doctors use social media. Doctors are urged to never share patient information online, especially where it might identify an individual. Even with appropriate privacy settings in place, Dr Nazem warned that anything posted online may end up being distributed further than intended.
The General Medical Council offers guidance on doctors’ use of social media in Maintaining a professional boundary between you and your patient, which states: “you must consider the potential risks involved in using social media and the impact that inappropriate use could have on your patients’ trust in you and society’s trust in the medical profession. Social media can blur the boundaries between a doctor’s personal and professional lives and may change the nature of the relationship between a doctor and a patient.”