The Medical Protection Society wants a new section on the use of social media incorporated into official ethical guidance issued to doctors.
The society has submitted a response to the General Medical Council’s consultation on guidance for Good Medical Practice.
It says that social media has caused “some strife” for doctors and a concise set of guidelines should form part of the main body of Good Medical Practice.
Dr Nick Clements, MPS head of medical services, said the society has seen members get into difficulties for posting confidential or inappropriate comments on social media websites.
“Whilst social media present opportunities for doctors to network, engage with the public and get involved in public health discussions, there are potential pitfalls that doctors need to be aware of,” he explained.
He added that while it was “positive” to see the GMC providing guidance to address the increasing use of social media websites, the society believes that it warrants its own section within Good Medical Practice.
In a recent survey of MPS members, the society identified that Facebook is the most popular social media website, with more than one third of respondents (36%) using it daily.
“It is all too easy for boundaries between our professional and private lives to become blurred,” said Dr Clements.
“However, posting inappropriate comments or describing a patient’s care could lead to a breach of confidentially, damage to a doctor’s reputation and can harm the doctor-patient relationship,”
One in five (21%) of MPS survey respondents said they used Twitter. “Doctors have to be aware that nothing they say online is anonymous and can often be traced back to its origin,” he added.
“This advice is not just for doctors using social networking websites such as Twitter, Facebook and Google+, but doctors’ forums and blogs such as Doctors.net.uk.
“Doctors should remember that the same standards of professionalism and confidentiality apply no matter what the medium of communication.”
Dr Clements said the overall objective of the guidance is to provide clear messages on what is an acceptable use of social media, with explicit guidelines to adhere to.
Waterfront and Solent Surgery GP Dr Simon Sherwin said that in 2009, when he was designing a new practice webpage, he noticed that a number of practices had a presence on Facebook and Twitter.
He created a Facebook site and linked Twitter feed to be a less formal point of information about the practice than the official website.
Patients can post updates and Dr Sherwin writes a blog about what is going on in and around the surgery, which has had more than 1,800 page views over the last year.
“The idea is to have a friendlier presence on the Internet,” he said. “We want to be a positive approachable and friendly GP.”
Dr Sherwin argued that common sense should prevail amongst doctors using social media sites, but pointed out that medicine is a “guideline driven industry.”
He has never had problems with inappropriate comments or information being posted on site and encourages other GPs to get involved in using social media.