Efficient and innovative communication within the healthcare sector is a valuable resource and healthcare professionals are becoming increasingly reliant on the use of social media and messaging apps to communicate and share patient information with one another. However, messages composed and sent within seconds can have serious and lasting professional, legal and regulatory repercussions.

Over the past 5 years, over 1,200 NHS staff received disciplinary action due to their use of social media (or messaging apps). The instances of improper use of social media were seen from support staff to GPs. Predominantly, the cases involved the disclosure confidential patient information, complaints about colleagues or inappropriate contact with patients, with the consequences ranging from suspensions to dismissals and resignations.

We usually come into contact with medical staff at the most vulnerable period in our lives and the relationship we have with healthcare professionals has an implicit level of trust. The trust we place in staff in healthcare sector should be given due respect by both frontline and support staff. The disclosure of confidential patient information through any means is a clear breach of trust within this relationship.

Undoubtedly, releasing confidential information, or making inappropriate comments on social media will have significant repercussions for the professional breaching their duty, both personally and professionally.

As social media evolves and further embeds itself in daily life, all users of social media and messaging apps should be aware of the professional and personal consequences of this method of communication and as pointed out in our previous blog on the subject, it is essential for all professionals to think before they press send. Anyone handling personal information should be alive to the risks of sending information on a public and accessible platform, such as social media, where information could be easily intercepted, and evidence can rarely be permanently deleted. However, professionals should also be aware of the consequences of making inappropriate or unprofessional comments on social media.

There are numerous advantages of the healthcare sector embracing social media, including the advent of mobile GP apps, and sharing information to provide effective patient care in an often time-sensitive environment.

The perils

However, the dangers of the use (or misuse) of social media for healthcare professionals can be serious . For example:

  1. Professional and personal boundaries can become distorted
  2. Anonymous users, or users operating under a pseudonym are not guaranteed anonymity and comments can often be traced to identify the user
  3. Information sent is far-reaching and instantaneous
  4. Permanence – even after an ill-thought comment or message it deleted, if saved/circulated by another user, or a screenshot has been taken the evidence of the comment still exists. The implications of this level of permanence were shown in that some of the NHS investigations took place a number of years after the original comment had been sent.

Training is key

NHS Trusts (and other employers engaging with the individual’s personal information) should ensure staff receive adequate training to raise awareness of the pitfalls of social media.

All staff within the organisation could learn personal facts about patients/colleagues and should be given training on the importance of upholding the duty of confidentiality, with a specific focus on social media. In light of GDPR, all staff should be made aware of the fact that personal information should never be released without the individual’s consent. Staff should be informed of the consequences for the organisation and themselves, both personally and professionally.

Additionally robust systems to safeguard patient information should be applied across all staff within these organisations, however the responsibility ultimately lies with the staff to be aware of their professional obligations and act with professionalism. As a society we are increasingly sharing our lives online, but all professionals should be mindful to draw a line between their professional and personal lives and be aware that their conduct in their personal life can have a bearing on their professional life.

Prevention is better than cure

Protecting yourself when using social media does not need to be a difficult task, if you remember the following:

1. Think before pressing send

Messages and tweets often take mere seconds to draft and send. Pausing to read over the content before hitting send will often make you re-think what you would say and often can highlight any inappropriate information.

2. Consider your professional obligations

Working in the healthcare sector, it is unlikely to ever be appropriate for you to share information about a patient on a social media platform. Also, as a professional, any of your thoughts on colleagues should not be communicated on a public platform but within a work based environment with the appropriate personnel present.

3. Think about the context

When typing, consider how your comment may be taken out of context. Tone, humour and meaning can often be lost in a tweet, therefore consider if your comment may be interpreted differently by your followers.

4. Ensure your privacy protections are what you think they are

Several social media sites allow users to dictate who can see what content they send, however it often happens that people believe their profile to be “private” and visible to only their connections within the platform, when in fact their profile has much greater visibility than imagined.

And finally, if you haven’t got anything nice to say…don’t say anything at all.