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Treat messages shared in personal WhatsApp chats as being in the public domain, GPs advised

by Rima Evans
5 February 2024

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GPs are being warned that communication they share in private WhatsApp chats or other similar messaging groups can be the subject of complaint or be considered in professional disciplinary proceedings.

Doctors can be held to accountable for things they say, like or share in private messaging groups both work-related or personal, the Medical Defence Union has warned.

It is advising GPs only to post information on private WhatsApp groups and other social messaging services that they would be happy to be made public.

The warning comes as new guidance from the GMC on doctors’ use of social media came into effect last week, as part of an update to its Good Medical Practice  standards.

For the first time, the guidance tells doctors that ‘when communicating privately, including using instant messaging services, you should bear in mind that messages or other communications in private groups may also become public.’ The GMC also makes it clear that it has ‘a legal duty to investigate any concerns raised to us that reach our fitness to practise threshold.’

Dr Catherine Wills, MDU deputy head of advisory services, said doctors are expected to uphold professional standards when using social media and this extends to their private lives. 

‘They can be held accountable for things they say, like or share in private messaging groups, even those that are not work related. Many are not aware of this.

‘Our advice is to carefully consider the private messaging groups you join and the information you post, like, share and comment on within them. Think about how you would feel if a colleague or patient saw the chat, or if it was shared to a wider audience.’

The GMC guidance also advises doctors that the standards remain the same whether communication takes place face-to-face or via a social media platform. 

Doctors are expected to:

  • identify themselves when commenting on health issues
  • maintain appropriate professional boundaries
  • take care not to breach patient confidentiality
  • behave respectfully to colleagues.

Dr Wills added that doctors are increasingly seeking advice from the MDU on their social media use.

The organisation has helped more than 300 healthcare professionals with queries about social media over the past three years, it said. A third of these were from healthcare professionals seeking advice on their social media use or support dealing with a complaint following posting on social media. There have also been a number of cases in which private communications have been considered in professional disciplinary proceedings.

Dr Ezgi Ozcan, a GP trainee who shares educational videos on social media, said: ‘When I’m talking to medical students and trainees about social media, I always remind them that they are expected to uphold the same professional standards from when they’re on duty, outside the professional sphere. This goes for whatever platform you are using. As well as being aware of GMC guidance, it’s important to check your employer’s social media policy and stay within the rules.”