The Lancet, Volume 379, Issue 9826, Page 1562, 28 April 2012
On April 18, The General Medical Council, which regulates medical practice in the UK, opened up its draft guidance on doctors' use of social media for consultation. Comments can be made until June 13, and the results will be published by the end of the year. The guidance emphasises the need to maintain patient confidentiality, provide accurate information, treat colleagues with respect, avoid anonymity online if writing in a professional capacity, be aware of how content is shared, review privacy settings and online presence, declare conflicts of interest, and maintain separate personal and professional profiles.
This conservative approach is not dissimilar to existing guidance from medical associations. Accepting Facebook friend requests from patients is, in general, not advised. But what of situations where doctors and patients are genuine friends? What, too, of the benefits of doctors providing medical information via blogs, Twitter, or Facebook? Current guidance focuses more on the risks than the benefits of doctors' use of social media.
Patients use social networks to research their symptoms, their doctors, their treatments, and to set up support and information groups. Clinicians can use social media to drive awareness, to provide accurate information, and as a portal to communicate with other physicians. An example is the Floating Doctors programme, which uses Facebook and Twitter to ask specialists for clinical advice for patients in remote areas of Central America. Across Africa, the potential for top-quality health information, advice, and access to treatment can be aided by doctors contributing to social media networks. In Taiwan, Facebook use has even contributed to reform of emergency departments.
Much is said about the dangers of social media. Care about posting in a public space is, of course, needed. Doctors, though, should seize the opportunities provided by social networks to improve the health of their patients, and do their utmost to ensure that the highest quality of health information and access to treatment is there for all.