How much information should doctors and medical professionals share on social media?
The ethical and legal pitfalls facing health professionals in an age of instant‚ global communication are akin to a minefield.
The furore around low-carbohydrate high-fat advocate Tim Noakes is a case in point.
He emerged victorious after a long and bruising disciplinary after giving dietary advice to a breastfeeding mother on Twitter.
Academic dismissal‚ employment termination and deregistration from professional boards are some of the sanctions faced by health professionals abroad.
Brenda Kubheka from the School of Public Health‚ Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand says a whole new generation of medical students have emerged with digital footprints and established social media habits “unimaginable to their seniors”.
Writing in the South African Medical Journal‚ she cited a study that found 52% of undergraduate medical students admitted to having “embarrassing photos on Facebook”.
But‚ she warned‚ the same laws and codes of conduct apply in cyberspace as they do in the real world in a paper titled‚ Ethical and legal perspectives on use of social media by health professionals in South Africa.
“Failure to uphold ethical standards on social media exposes patients to embarrassment and psychological harm‚ thus undermining the principles of beneficence and non-maleficence‚” she wrote.
Social media is a valuable tool for health promotion due to its massive reach. Group-based communication using WhatsApp enables medical professionals to communicate about shift work‚ traffic issues and‚ for example‚ share pictures of patients when requesting second opinions from colleagues.
Kubheka’s paper offers some useful pointers on cyberspace etiquette for medical professionals. They include:
– Think carefully before accepting friend requests from patients or sending friend requests to them‚ because of the risk of blurring professional and personal lives.
– Sharing patients’ photographs‚ even for educational purposes‚ might constitute an invasion of privacy.
– Do not take photographs without obtaining informed consent from patients.
– Share generic information online. Avoid responding with direct medical advice to individuals.
– Making negative comments about colleagues and patients on social media can be viewed as bullying and unprofessional.
“Professionals ought to ask themselves before posting on social media whether sharing certain information is legally and morally defensible‚” said the paper.
It recommended that the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) “develop social media guidelines and train medical trainers in this specific area”.
Medical schools were also encouraged to address social media issues.