Doctors told not to make friends with patients on Facebook
Doctors are should not accept Facebook requests from current and former patients and should consider adopting “conservative privacy settings” where possible, the British Medical Association (BMA) has said.
In new guidance titled ‘Using social media: practical and ethical guidance for doctors and medical students’, the BMA explains that problems can occur if the boundaries of the doctor-patient relationship become blurred.
The guidance also says that:
• The ethical and legal duty to protect patient confidentiality applies equally on the internet as to other media.
• It is inappropriate to post informal, personal or derogatory comments about patients or colleagues on public internet forums.
• Doctors and medical students who post online have an ethical obligation to declare any conflicts of interest.
• Defamation law can apply to any comments posted on the web made in either a personal or professional capacity.
The BMA said that while many doctors and medical students use social media such as Facebook, Twitter, blogs and internet forums without problems, they could be risking their privacy and damaging their professionalism.
Dr Tony Calland, chairman of the BMA’s medical ethics committee, said: “Social media presents doctors and medical students with opportunities, as well as challenges. The BMA guidance is important as it provides doctors with the tools to prevent potential social media pitfalls.
“Medical professionals should be wary of who could access their personal material online, how widely it could be shared and how it could be perceived by their patients and colleagues.”
He explained that research had shown that while most doctors would not accept Facebook friend requests from patients, a minority said they would consider doing so.
“Yet accepting Facebook friends presents doctors with difficult ethical issues,” he said. “For example, doctors could be become aware of information about their patients that has not been disclosed as part of a clinical consultation.”
It would be “wholly inappropriate” for doctors to disclose information about their patients online, Calland added.
The BMA guidance follows similar advice issued by the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) earlier this week. The regulator warned that “improper use of Facebook” had led to staff being investigated or in some cases struck off.
Professor Dickon Weir-Hughes, chief executive of the NMC, said: “I would advise nurses and midwives to exercise caution when using social networking sites. They could risk their registration if they share sensitive information, make inappropriate comments, or befriend patients online.”