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Social media blurs doctor patient relationship, warn experts

Doctors who interact with patients on social media risk blurring the boundaries of the professional relationship, according to a medical defence organisation. 

MDDUS (The Medical and Dental Defence Union of Scotland) has reported a 74% increase in calls from doctors on the subject of social media this year compared to 2013. While a small part of this rise could be attributed to growth in membership, MDDUS now receives four times as many social media-related calls compared to 2011.

A study published last month in The Lancet Oncology revealed that one in seven doctors had accepted Facebook friend requests from patients.

MDDUS medical adviser Dr Naeem Nazem reminds doctors of their obligations to keep their relationship with patients professional. 

“Social media offers a platform for doctors to network effectively and develop their own knowledge and expertise,” says Dr Nazem.

“However, the rise of social media has created some serious ethical challenges for doctors and their relationship with patients. We have handled a number of cases where doctors have sought advice from us regarding social media issues, including patients posting critical or abusive comments.

“Doctors must keep their relationship with patients professional at all times. Accepting a Facebook friend request from a patient or commenting on a post risks blurring the boundaries between a professional and personal relationship. As a consequence, doctors may find that their ability to make objective judgements in clinical situation is affected.”

Social media can offer a detailed insight into a doctor’s life when they are off duty, warns the MDDUS.

“As a doctor, the reality is you are never off duty and their status in the public eye demands a high standard of conduct at all times,” says Dr Nazem. “By interacting with patients online, doctors are exposing themselves to be scrutinised from their own homes.

“When using Facebook or Twitter, doctors should ensure patient confidentiality and should avoid sharing any patient information, especially anything that could potentially be linked to an identifiable individual. Even with the proper privacy settings in place, anything posted online may end up being distributed further than intended.”

The General Medical Council’s (GMC) guidance ‘Maintaining a professional boundary between you and your patient’ on doctors’ use of social media, states:  “You must consider the potential risks involved in using social media and the impact that inappropriate use could have on your patients’ trust in you and society’s trust in the medical profession. Social media can blur the boundaries between a doctor’s personal and professional lives and may change the nature of the relationship between a doctor and a patient.”