There has been a significant increase in the use of social media platforms in medicine and healthcare in recent years. In a recent survey conducted by the Medical Protection Society,1 36% of respondents confirmed that they use Facebook on a daily basis and 21% said that they use Twitter. There are also a growing number of internet forums and blogs aimed at medical professionals in which medical issues are dealt with and discussed among peers.
However, the increased use of social media by doctors also raises a new set of concerns around important issues such as patient confidentiality, the blurring of personal and professional relationships and the importance of maintaining professionalism online at all times.
In 2012 the UK General Medical Council (GMC) consulted with its members with a view to developing new guidelines on the use of social media by doctors. The draft guidelines include guidance on a number of issues including, for example, what to do if a patient contacts a doctor through a private profile and the importance of not using social media platforms to discuss individual patients or their care. These new guidelines are part of a wider review of the GMC's Good Medical Practice, its core guidance document for doctors. According to the GMC, "the standards expected of doctors do not change because they are communicating through social media rather than face to face, phone or email". It is therefore imperative that medical practitioners remain cognisant of the fact that the same standards of professionalism and confidentiality apply regardless of the medium of communication involved.
The new guidelines, entitled "Doctors' Use of Social Media", are expected to be published on the GMC's website as part of the new edition of Good Medical Practice on March 25 2013. The new guidance will come into effect on April 22 2013.
The Irish Medical Council has not yet published specific guidelines for doctors relating to the use of social media. The council has stated that the guidelines set out in its Guide to Professional Conduct and Ethics for Registered Medical Practitioners are applicable across the board, including the use of social media by doctors. In the council's Guidelines for Medical Schools on Ethical Standards and Behaviour Appropriate for Medical Students, under the confidentiality heading, there is reference to medical students understanding that they should never discuss patients with other students or professionals, which includes discussion via social networking sites.
Taking into account the prevalence of social media today, it remains to be seen whether the Irish Medical Council will follow the GMC's lead in providing further guidance in this area.