The General Medical Council (GMC) keeps a register of all doctors in the UK, regulates medical licensing and sets out guidelines for appropriate behaviour for doctors. In 2013 they published a document called Doctors’ use of social media, which outlines the rules doctors should abide by when using social media. You can have a look at the original document in the 📚 Useful Resources section below and here’s a quick summary:
Same standards: Standards of behaviour expected of doctors are the same regardless of whether their behaviour is observed in real life or online. Acting inconsistently with the guidelines of Good Medical Practise while online will be subject to the same consequences as in real life.
Improving access to information: Doctors’ use of social media can benefit patients by engaging people in public health, establishing professional networks and facilitating patients’ access to health-related information.
Professional boundaries: Doctors should maintain professional boundaries with patients online. For instance, when a patient contacts you in a healthcare-related matter through a private social media account you should direct the patient to a professional profile (many doctors consult patients online, but only through appropriate platforms) or recommend a meeting in a clinical setting.
Breaching confidentiality: Doctors should take special care when sharing information about their patients to ensure they don’t (individually or collectively) breach confidentiality.
Fairness and respect: Doctors should treat their colleagues fairly and with respect, and not bully or harass anyone (as they would in a clinical setting).
Conflict of Interest: Doctors should be transparent about conflicts of interest and benefits from any healthcare organisations, pharmaceutical or biomedical companies.
🥼 Promoting accessibility to high-quality information and sharing expert views: People do and will seek medical information on social media, so why not improve the quality of information available out there? Doctors with the skill of scrutinising research, knowledge and access to the latest scientific research can add knowledgeable opinions and knowledge backed by quality data. The general public rarely seeks information in prestigious, peer-reviewed medical journals. But doctors can translate that complex information into a more understandable language and share it in an authoritative voice.
👥 Easy way to access a large group of patients: Social media is a powerful tool, which allows doctors to run educational campaigns reaching thousands or hundreds of thousands of patients within a day’s time. And such campaigns can raise patients’ awareness about their conditions, and healthcare risks associated with certain activities and allow them to lead more conscious, healthier lives. Imagine how difficult (and how much more costly) it would be to reach such a group through consultations, leaflets or even banners! Social media accounts dedicated to educating about a disease or speciality can also help target a narrowed down group of patients and improve the efficiency of the message.
🧑🏫 Teaching: Teaching the public to critically appraise medical information they find online, distinguish between credible and unreliable sources of information, and promote quality, reliable data.
🔉 Have their voices heard. In the past, doctors have leveraged social media platforms to raise concerns about new NHS reforms (like the Junior Doctor contract in 2015), quality of care (as when so many doctors were unable to work during the Omicron wave in 2021/22) or bring about protest movements (2016 Junior Doctors’ strikes). On the surface, it may seem such actions don’t benefit the NHS or patients directly but in the end, the purpose of these actions is to ensure patient safety and better quality care.
🤝 Networking. Doctors can reach out to each other through social media with great ease. They can share ideas, combine their knowledge, and discuss cases (sometimes), which can all lead to fascinating research projects or innovations.
🖇️ Connecting with patients on a more personal level: Everywhere around the world some percentage of the public has mixed feelings about healthcare and visiting a doctor. And that’s totally understandable: Maybe they’ve had a bad experience with healthcare or are victims of misinformation and fear spread on the internet. With doctors sharing their expertise and what they get up to behind the scenes, this can create a more humane, personal doctor-patient connection. Provided, of course, that doctors use social media professionally and responsibly (that they don’t post how they get hammered every Friday evening, for instance).
💡 Inspiration. I bet you’ve watched at least a few day-in-the-life vlogs of medical students or doctors before applying. We’ve all had that guilty pleasure that gave us motivation and strength to apply to medical school. But besides that, sharing the ins and outs of being a doctor can encourage some people to consider a career in medicine in the first place.
ℹ️ The ease and speed of spreading misinformation. Nowadays the algorithms decide what is worthy of your attention and what isn’t, often without judging the value of content. This phenomenon has been especially prevalent since the onset of the pandemic, with some doctors sharing false information, falsifying data or leading anti-vax movements. In fact, a few doctors have had their medical licenses suspended or revoked as a consequence of such actions (read about Dr Anne McCloskey here).
🤥 Risking trust the public bestows upon doctors. Trust towards healthcare, science and doctors is really brittle, which has been highlighted numerous times throughout history, such as by the Wakefield MMR scandal. Sometimes an innocent tweet, post or picture can go viral and make people lose the trust and respect of patients.
🌍 Virality: Information you share can go viral without your knowledge in a blink. It may be difficult to fix mistakes, so it’s better to prevent them by thinking before posting.
🤑 Conflicts of interest: Although most doctors may not have as large of a following and engagement as celebrities, they have huge authority, just by the virtue of being doctors. Hence, they are an attractive target for many healthcare-related or pharmaceutical companies. Doctors need to be transparent about any interest they may have to promote the brand/product, to ensure patients are aware of potential conflicts of interest
🔓 Breaching confidentiality. It’s much harder to maintain privacy online where information can spread fast and be accessed easily by unwanted individuals. Even an innocent selfie in the doctors' mess that can feature a patient’s X-ray scan in the background and can allow identification of a patient,breaching confidentiality.
It’s no surprise that social media has helped spread misinformation about Covid-19 and vaccines, amplifying fear and hindering the fight against the virus. However, the wide-reaching spread of misinformation has also highlighted and taught us about the importance of reliability on data.
But social media also serves as an easy way to communicate breakthroughs, new variants or new measures to the public.
Study led by the WHO showed that an overwhelming amount of information about Covid-19 makes adults more apathetic to the crisis.
The ease of collaboration between researchers around the globe in times of restricted mobility was to a large extent possible due to social media platforms. Their ideas were exchanged and findings were shared immediately, which was especially important at the onset of the pandemic when information about the virus, its transmission and the severity of the disease was scarce.
So how does the topic of social media use by doctors relate to your medicine interviews? Since most of us use social media nowadays, the benefits and limits of social media use by healthcare professionals is a universal topic that will affect everyone working in healthcare in one or another. Here are a few example interview questions about social media that you could face in your interviews:
🔗 Sources: gmc-uk.org, bma.org.uk, Ventola, C Lee. “Social media and health care professionals: benefits, risks, and best practices.” P & T : a peer-reviewed journal for formulary managementvol. 39,7 (2014): 491-520.