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Current Social Media Guidance

Written by Dr. Luke Farmery · Tuesday 11th June 2013

Hello & Welcome!

You may have already read my blog on 'My Top 5 Tips to use Social Media to Improve your Medical Education' and if so you will have an idea of what 'Social Media' is and how it can be harnessed to improve medical education. There are also features that could improve health promotion and communication but today I would like to focus on where we have to be careful with these resources.

In my last blog I circumnavigated the drawbacks of social media in medicine so that I could give them the full attention they deserve in their own blog today. But its not all doom and gloom! I also hope to give you a brief overview of the current social media guidance that is available to doctors and medical students and how we can minimise the risks associated with representing ourselves online.

But firstly, what actually is social media and why do i keep blogging about it? If you are new here I recommend giving 'Social Media' a quick google, but the phrase basically includes any website where the user (i.e. you) can upload information and interact with other users. Thats a definition of the top of my head, so don't hold me to it, but most people would agree that this definition includes the classic examples of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Linkedin etc, but there are many many more. These sites are important to us as (future) health professionals because they can be both used and unfortunately abused. However, several medical bodies including the General Medical Council and the Royal College of General Practitioners agree that these resources are here to stay and they shouldn't (and probably couldn't) be excommunicated. With this in mind, there has been much guidance on the topic, but as you are about to find out a lot of it is common sense and your own personal discretion.

Before you read on, I'd like to forewarn you that I try and keep things lighthearted with this topic. I'll hope you can excuse my levity of the situation, especially if any of the original authors of these guidelines end up reading this post. But as I am sure you are aware, this is a dry topic and hard to digest without the odd joke or two...

British Medical Association - Using Social Media: practical and ethical guidance for doctors and medical


The BMA guidance is the earliest guidance originating from a major medical body that i've come across. That said, I have not done a proper literature review of the subject. This is a blog, not a dissertation. But still, the BMA gives an early and brief summary of the problems facing health professionals using social media. Key points such as patient confidentiality, personal privacy, defamation, copyright and online professionalism are covered and therefore it is a nice starting point. It is also quite a short document, which may appeal to those who are less feverent on the subject.

On the other hand, I personally feel that the BMA guidance does social media an injustice by not going into the great benefits these resources can yield. There are also no really practical tips or solutions for the drawbacks they've highlighted to students.

Read it for yourself here or just google 'BMA Guidance Social Media'

Royal College of General Practitioners - Social Media Highway Code

Feb 2013

The RCGP guidelines are my favourite. After a cheesy introduction likening the social media surge with the dawn of the automobile they then take a turn for the worse by trying to continue the metaphor further by sharing a 'Social Media Highway Code'. Their Top 10 Tips that form the majority of the code don't look to be much more than common sense. However, each chapter there after dissects each of their recommendations in great detail and provides practical tips on how to make the most from social media whilst protecting yourself from the issues raised above.

As I mentioned earlier, the RCGP recognise the inevitability of social media and they acknowledge this in the better part of their introduction. They make a great point that older doctors have a responsibility to become technologically savvy, whereas younger doctors who have grown up engrossed in social networking probably have to develop their professionalism skills more than their older colleagues (I'm aware this is a generalising statement). Either way, the RCGP highlight that everyone has something to take away from this set of guidelines.

Read it for yourself here or google; 'RCGP Social Media Guidance,' but be warned, this is one of the more lengthy documents available on the topic.

General Medical Council - Doctor's Use of Social Media

April 2013

The GMC guidance kicks off with a little summary of the relevant bits of 'Good Medical Practice.' Again, nothing much that isn't common sense. That being said, they then go on to write that 'Serious or persistent failure to follow this guidance will put your registration at risk,' which sounds ominous and probably warrants a quick flick through (do it now! - the PDF is at the bottom of their page).

Reassuringly, the GMC does not try and place a blanket ban on social media. They give a 'tip of the hat' to the benefits of social media and then go on to outline all the drawbacks as many of the guidance already has. Asides from the issue of anonymity there is really nothing new covered and the GMC actually gives a lot of autonomy to doctors and medical students. However, the GMC are, in many ways, who we ultimately answer to and so you would be a fool not to revisit the issues they cover in their version of the guidance.

As I mentioned, the GMC brought online anonymity to the forefront of our minds. Should we, shouldn't we? A lot of health professionals believe that the human right to a private life extends to the right to have anonymity online. However, before we go into this any further lets take a closer look at what the GMC actually says...

If you identify yourself as a doctor in publicly accessible social media, you should also identify yourself by name. Any material written by authors who represent themselves as doctors is likely to be taken on trust and may reasonably be taken to represent the view of the profession more widely.

As you can see, the use of the phrase 'Should also identify yourself by name' gives some room for manoeuvre and is a world apart from what could have been written (i.e. you must). To those who believe their human rights are being infringed, perhaps a solution is to stop identifying yourself as a doctor online, although I appreciate this can be difficult if you are tagged in certain things. There are a number of good points why doctors shouldn't be anonymous online and it is certainly a must if you are in the trade of offering health promotion via the world wide web. However, I can see the point of those who want to remain anonymous for comical or satirical purposes. A quick google of the topic will reveal that the GMC has said that they do not envisage fitness to practice issues arising from doctors remaining anonymous online, but from the temptations that arise from running an anonymous profile such as cyber-bullying and misinformation.

Read the GMC guidance yourself here.

National Health Service (Health Education) - Social Media in Education

May 2013

The NHS-HE guidelines are high quality and cover the entire scope of what social media means to medicine. There are several key issues that I haven't encountered elsewhere. This set of guidance is written from a managerial, technical perspective. It doesn't really feel aimed at doctors or medical students but it gives such an overview of the subject that I thought it was worth including.

If you feel brave enough, read it for yourself here.


To my knowledge, these are the current key guidelines for the use of social media in medicine. I hope you have found this blog useful in providing a quick summary of a topic that is becoming increasingly swamped with lengthy guidelines. In the future we need to see material produced or delivered that educates health professionals in how to use social media, rather than regurgitating the pros and cons every couple of months. I think webicina is a good example of a social media 'training course,' . There should be more material like this. Perhaps this is where I'm headed with my next project...

As always, if you have anything to add to this blog, please feel free to add to the comments below. I will be able to take difficult queries forwards with me to the Doctors 2.0 conference next week! If you are a student and interested in coming to the conference in Paris next week you should get in contact with me directly (@LFarmery on twitter).

Also, it would be a great help if you could fill out my very quick pilot survey to help me understand how doctors and medical students currently use social media.

Also see my website Occipital Designs



The thoughts and feelings expressed here are those produced by my own being and are not representative in part or whole of any organisation or company. Occipital Designs is a rather clunky, thinly veiled, pseudonym. If you would like to contact me please do so on Twitter...