Updated 22 May 2023
GP partner and trainer Dr David Coleman outlines the importance of having a practice policy on how staff use social media – and some of the key issues to consider
For the majority of us, social media is part of our daily lives. Facebook counts over 44 million UK users while Twitter has over 19 million. Millions more use TikTok, Instagram, LinkedIn, Reddit – the list goes on.
Social media provides an instant platform for individuals and organisations alike. Indeed, it’s never been easier to connect with your audience. However, the benefits of such a potent platform are closely associated with the risks. The instancy and reach of a social media post means that one simple misstep can inflict reputational damage within minutes.
Let’s consider a practice looking after 10,000 patients. In 2023, it’s likely to have a website, a Facebook page and a Twitter account to communicate with its patient population. Each of its 30 staff members likely have multiple private social media accounts – I have eight or nine on various platforms.
This suggests there could be in excess of 100 social media channels connected to the practice. Given the propensity for oversharing, exaggeration and venting on social media, that are a lot of potential sources of issues for a practice. Of course, it’s impossible to vet or control what people post and I’d be perturbed if any practice wanted to adopt such an authoritarian approach. However, a social media policy outlining the expected standards of conduct and providing examples of unacceptable behaviour seems inherently sensible.
Staff individual social media accounts
Both the GMC and NMC have documents advising registered members about use of social media. The GMC document is based around Duties of a Doctor, while the NMC document refers to the Code. They centre around being respectful, adhering to confidentiality guidelines, and being responsible about the accuracy of information posted. If you wouldn’t say something in an on the record interview to a national newspaper, or speak it out loud in a room full of your peers and patients, it is most likely not appropriate to post it on social media. It doesn’t matter how good you think your privacy settings are.
The RCGP also produced a Social Media Highway Code which is thought provoking and useful. One chapter is titled ‘Recognise that the personal and professional can’t always be separated’, which is really at the core of how we should approach social media.
Develop a practice policy
Non-clinical staff should be aware of and bound by the same principles, and I would advise building your practice policy around the three policy documents outlined above. In addition, an archived (but still useful) document from ACAS advises that a policy should set out ‘what is and what is not acceptable behaviour at work when using the internet, emails, smart phones, and networking websites,’ while also providing ‘clear guidelines for employees on what they can and cannot say about the organisation’. The distinction between use of social media for business and private purposes should be made clear.
Setting clear boundaries about what can and cannot be discussed and agreeing them with a staff representative would go some way to ensuring employees don’t feel ‘gagged’ or too heavily monitored. Updating and responding to new developments, (such as adding a clause about posting misinformation during the pandemic), is vital to ensure the policy remains relevant.
- The policy should be a living document, regularly reviewed and updated
- Clarify the distinction between private and business use
- Set clear guidelines about what employees can and cannot say about the practice
- Consider specifically addressing hot topics, e.g. the pandemic
- Consult employees to secure their buy-in and compliance
- Have a clear disciplinary process in place
- Include a section about use of practice social media accounts
- Include a section on how to interact with patients on these channels to ensure consistency; make clear that these channels are not an avenue for complaints and advise critical commenters to follow the practice complaints procedure.
Practice social media accounts
It is a good idea to have a small, restricted group of staff responsible for posting on practice social media channels. They should be fully aware of the practice policy and ensure they keep the accounts secure. The practice website should feature a copy of the practice’s policy for responding to comments, requests for appointments made over social media, and complaints made over social media. It is also sensible to include a prominent note outlining that retweets or sharing of documents does not always equate to endorsement of the contents.
Staff who like or follow the practice page should be advised to keep their account privacy settings high to safeguard their personal information and posts.
We all know that primary care is under immense pressure at the moment. It’s easy get frustrated about aspects of this – be it the public’s expectations around access, workload lack of general practice funding, rising costs and so forth. My advice would be to talk about these frustrations with your family or colleagues, and to maintain a professional approach to posting on social media. Sure, it might seem fun to chase likes by posting controversial content but it can be surprisingly easy to cross the line.
2. Sharing clinical stories
Whether it’s something supposedly humorous or an educational item, posting anything with clinical details is fraught with problems. Even a surprisingly brief synopsis of a case may inadvertently identify a patient and breach their confidentiality. Even if it doesn’t, I post in the expectation that some of my patients and staff will probably read my posts. If I am talking about other patients on social media, how will they trust I don’t do the same about them? Equally risky is that people who have had similar experiences may feel mocked. If you feel you really want to post educational content I would think about a private group for professionals and ensure that GDPR regulations are adhered to and that consent is obtained as appropriate.
There is an excellent case study here from the GMC about this very issue.
- Social media is embedded into our lives and is not going away. If you don’t have one already you should consider creating a social media policy for your practice.
- Ensure that all employees recognise that the personal and professional can’t always be separated.
- Be careful to set appropriate privacy settings – but don’t rely on them. If you wouldn’t say something in public, why are you saying it on social media?
- Avoid sharing any clinical information, however banal it may seem.
- Don’t be afraid to use social media for your benefit. It can be a wonderful tool for interacting with your patients if used appropriately.
Dr David Coleman is a GP partner and trainer and PCN co-clinical director in South Yorkshire