Careers clinic: How can I remain professional on social media?

Authors: Abi Rimmer 

Publication date:  14 Nov 2017


Social media can be a useful tool to connect with colleagues and share ideas, however it is important that doctors are also aware of the potential pitfalls, Abi Rimmer finds.

“Social media is a powerful way to create a reputation”

Bernadette John, digital professionalism consultant, says, “Make sure that you review the privacy settings on your social media accounts regularly. Consider everything that you publish on digital and social channels as potentially public—the anonymous blog or Twitter account of today, even the comment you leave on a newspaper website, could turn up for scrutiny tomorrow.

“Never give medical advice in a public forum and don’t accept Facebook friend requests from patients. All online discussions around patient care must be anonymised and should be restricted to specific, appropriately hosted and secure, professional channels.

“Try and avoid posting online when you are emotional, exhausted, or under the influence. Social media is a powerful way to create a reputation so ensure that what is to be found about you will reassure and not alarm patients, employers, or colleagues.

“Never take clinical images with your smartphone—unless you have a specific, secure, employer approved application for this purpose. Images shared by iMessage or Whatsapp, for example, on an iPhone can be downloaded to the Apple iCloud by default whether or not you have opened them.

“Remember that ‘free’ apps are not really free at all; the functionality is paid for by allowing access to your data; for example, your location, contact list, calendar, microphone, and camera. The app might even have the right to read and send messages from your device by text and email without notifying you.

“Communication and storage of patient data must comply with the new General Data Protection Regulations which will take effect in 2018.

“Be sure to password protect digital devices used for work and clean them thoroughly before they are upgraded or discarded.”

“Anything posted online may end up being distributed further”

Myooran Nathan, medical adviser at MDDUS, says, “Social media offers a platform for doctors to network effectively, engage with the public, and develop their own knowledge and expertise. However, the rise of social media has created some serious ethical challenges for doctors.

“A doctor’s status in the public eye demands a high standard of conduct at all times. By interacting on social media, doctors are exposing themselves to greater scrutiny, especially when they identify themselves as doctors.

“Doctors must keep their relationship with patients professional at all times. By interacting with a patient on social media, they risk blurring the boundaries and affecting the nature of the doctor-patient relationship.

“For example, doctors may find it more difficult to make objective judgements in clinical situations or that patients develop different expectations of them. Try to keep a clear line between professional and personal relationships on social media.

“When using social media for professional purposes, doctors should ensure patient confidentiality and must avoid sharing any identifiable patient information. Even with the proper privacy settings in place, anything posted online may end up being distributed further than intended.

“When posting online, you should identify yourself by name when you identify yourself as being a doctor, ensure you are respectful of colleagues, and declare any conflicts of interest.

“Further information can be found in GMC guidance: Maintaining a Professional Boundary Between You and Your Patient; and Doctors’ Use of Social Media.”

“Sharing your interests outside of work is not unprofessional”

Anne Marie Cunningham, GP and clinical informatician with NHS Wales, says, “The key to being professional on social media is being true to your values. If you think every day about how you put your professional values into action, then this will carry through to what you are doing on social media. For me, this is about demonstrating a commitment to social justice and to openly sharing what I am learning.

“If you are uncertain about whether you are taking the right course of action, then ask someone you trust for their opinion. Many people will be happy to act as your mentor. All of us have got things wrong at times but it is only a failure if we don’t learn from it. Do not be afraid to take some qualified risks. By playing it safe all the time you will not develop or learn to make better decisions.

“Sharing your interests and activities outside of work is not unprofessional. Showing the world what brings you joy or makes you sad can help you develop true connections, but do not feel obliged to share more about yourself that you feel comfortable with. You are entitled to your privacy.

“I have developed a diverse network through social media which challenges me. I try to practice kindness and gratitude online and to help my colleagues develop. No matter how far you are into your career you can intentionally use social media to become a better professional.”

Abi Rimmer BMJ Careers

Cite this as BMJ Careers ; doi: