Only people beyond a certain vintage would understand the connection between a cassette tape and a pencil. And I suspect that those same people are the target audience for those saying “get with the times” and “get on Facebook or Twitter” or some other form of social media. For those younger in years, social media is simply a part of everyday life. But its pervasiveness does not mean that social media should become the way in which we communicate in all aspects of our life, particularly our professional lives, where discretion and privacy often rule.

Doctors and health care providers ought to be very aware of the risks posed by mixing professional lives and the provision of health care with social media. A comprehensive social media policy is something which every hospital, medical practice and health care business generally needs today to let people know what is acceptable and not acceptable when posting information online and communicating with patients and others in a professional context.

A doctor in Rhode Island (US) was fired from her hospital position last year and had her privileges to work in the emergency room taken away by the Medical Board after she posted information online about a trauma patient which, whilst not specifically identifying the patient, did provide enough information for others in the community to work out who that patient was. The hospital in which that doctor was employed did not have a social media policy at the time.

Recently the New England Journal of Medicine asked whether doctors should “friend” their patients on Facebook. The consensus was a resounding no. Paediatrician Bryan Vartabedian sees such associations as fraught with potential risk. Every communication between doctor and patient needs to be documented, and Doctor Vartabedian noted that “the documentation on most social platforms isn’t detailed enough for other medical professionals or auditors to follow what has gone on between you and your care giver (and) lets not forget that Twitter has a habit of disappearing after a couple of weeks”.

There are of course opportunities for doctors and medical practices to provide more general information using social media. But social media is not something which ought to be used by health care providers to provide more personal medical advice to patients. One would also query whether patients really want to see their doctor in their Speedos on vacation. This may work for the leader of the Opposition, but is not something which is ideal in a doctor/patient relationship.

An interesting analogy in a US medical journal was a reference to Facebook as “the new elevator” ie. whereas previously health care providers were reminded to take care about what they said in elevators, it is now more important to remind them to take care about what they say online.