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The Issue of Consent when Using Social Media

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My gran always used to say that you should never hang your smalls to dry in the backyard. “You never know who might see them,” she’d say. “What if your grandad brought his boss home for dinner?” she’d ask me. In nearly fifty years of his working life, my grandad never once brought his boss home for dinner. But I understand what she meant. And she never let anyone hang her dirty laundry. That was her job.

Today’s backyard isn’t outside the kitchen door. It’s in every person’s living room or bedroom. People carry their washing lines with them wherever they go. Today’s washing line is called social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and similar online applications can be accessed by anyone, anytime, anywhere.

While social media is a great tool for disseminating information and communicating instantly, it’s also a minefield for your GP practice. In this blog I’ll look at a key conflict when it comes to using social media: patient interest vs. public interest.

Social media as a tool of education

One of the most exciting potential benefits of social media is its ability to be used as a tool of education.

I find it extremely unfortunate that so many fake news sites have popped up and splashing spurious stories across the web. There are plenty of gullible people out there who are taken in by such nonsense.

For doctors and the health service, social media offers a clearly identified and very popular method of educating mass groups of patients quickly, cheaply, and easily. But the question of patient confidentiality will arise.

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Keeping the patient’s identity hidden and providing a public service

Let’s say that you have a patient attend the clinic with symptoms of the Zikavirus. You decide to post a Facebook message alerting people to the warning signs and explain how Zika might be transferred from one person to another.

Personal stories are a powerful way to get people to read on and understand the message − like the one I used to open this post. I also identified my gran as the person I was writing about. This is where it gets very tricky for you as a doctor or other healthcare professional. It’s really difficult to write (or speak) about a person’s health issues without giving away information that enables others to identify your patient.

So you’re left with saying that “Person X saw Dr Y about her symptoms, which we can’t really detail. The patient attended surgery sometime in the last few weeks, and needless to say that diagnosis of their condition came as a shock. We really didn’t expect to see a case of disease A here.”

It doesn’t quite have the same impact, but is the only way to guarantee protection of patient identity.

GMC guidance on social media and patient confidentiality

A few days ago we discussed the latest guidelines on patient consent. The GMC makes it very clear that these standards should be observed on social media, too. If you publish any information that could be used to identify the patient, you’ll be breaching the GMC guidelines on patient confidentiality.

The more information you publish, the more likely it is that you’ll breach the guidelines. For example, saying “a patient came into the surgery in the last month with symptoms of the Zika virus” is less likely to lead to patient identification than saying “a married mum of two came into the surgery last Thursday complaining of a severe headache and muscle pain, and with a rash across her shoulders and neck.”

Even if you anonymise the message, the fact that people know who you are and what you do for a living makes it more likely that the patient could be identified.

In other words, always get the consent of the patient to discuss any of their case online or otherwise.

Always identify yourself as a doctor

The GMC considers it to be good practice to identify yourself as a doctor when commenting on health related issues. Doing so gives your message credibility, and adds weight to your views. Your views and message are taken seriously when you disclose your identity and qualification to write on a subject, and doing so also places the responsibility on you not to undermine public trust in the profession.

Don’t fall into the trap of airing dirty linen in public

Discussing viewpoints on social media can be liberating and informative. However, a lively debate can also quickly degenerate into a public and damaging war of words. So the rule here is to treat your fellow professionals with the respect you would expect. Never bully or make unsubstantiated comments online.

Social media, used correctly, can provide huge benefits to patients, disseminating information, educating, and helping people engage in the debate about healthcare. However, you are responsible for your actions and to maintain the credibility of the profession and confidentiality of your patients.

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If you have any questions or feedback, please do not hesitate to contact me -alex.henman@esuppliesmedical.co.uk- 01865 261451

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