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Laying it online: medicolegal risks of practice websites

31 May 2007

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Practices offering general medical information on their websites are being advised to make it clear that the information is intended solely for patients of the practice and that it should not be used as a substitute for personal advice direct from a GP.

The advice appears in an article in the Medical Defence Union’s (MDU) In Practice Journal for practice managers, explaining the potential medicolegal pitfalls of websites, such as the fact patients should be warned that electronic transmission of data via the website may not be totally secure.

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Dr Nicholas Norwell, MDU medicolegal adviser, and author of the article, said: “General practices are beginning to embrace the application of internet technology by setting up their own practice websites. While there are some obvious benefits to having a well-organised, up-to-date website, for example in reducing ‘did not attend’ rates by allowing patients to book appointments online, there are some potential drawbacks from a medicolegal point of view.

“Some practices offer general medical information on their site and it is important that a statement is included making it clear that this is intended solely for patients of the practice and should not be used as a substitute for seeking individual advice from a GP. Practices will also need to ensure information on a website is regularly updated and patients need to be informed, perhaps via a note on the website, that electronic transmission of data is not totally secure and be told how their data will be used.”

Other practice website advice offered in the article includes:

  • Practices using images of patients on their website need to ensure they have patients’ consent and do not breach their confidentiality.
  • GPs should avoid prescribing or treating patients emailing via the website from overseas because the patient cannot be examined or followed up immediately and the GP may need to be registered to practise in that country.
  • If the practice website offers email consultations, it is important that patients are made aware in advance that, since they allow no opportunity for a physical examination, there will be circumstances in which it may still be clinically necessary to attend the surgery.
  • Practices should aim to design their website to be accessible to all patients, so as not to contravene the Disability Discrimination Act 1999.