Social media guidelines for healthcare professionals
Published: 25 September 2019

EthiQal Team

Lives and industries are becoming increasingly digital, and healthcare is no exception. Not only is social media becoming recognised as an essential resource in the health industry, but more healthcare professionals are using social media in their personal, as well as professional capacity.
So, how do you conduct yourself safely in this digital era? EthiQal’s Senior Legal and Claims Manager JP Ellis shares these guidelines to help you understand social media risks and better navigate these platforms in your professional life.

Your online presence

• Since defamation law applies equally offline and online, if you wouldn’t post it on a billboard, don’t post it online.
• The same ethical and legal standards apply to both your online and offline presence, particularly with regards to your professionalism and protecting patients’ confidential personal information.
• Act diligently in monitoring your online reputation and act quickly when you receive unfavourable reviews.
• Non-clinical information that is being requested, such as parking, billing and opening hours, can be responded to by providing general information.
• Use social media generally to market your practice and responsibly in providing generic information.
• If you prefer to communicate with patients in a particular manner (e.g. telephonically, SMS, email or WhatsApp), indicate this upfront to your patients.
• Document your patient’s preferred communication channel and be sure to update patient details when requested.
• Make use of read receipts when using email correspondence.
• Important emails should be followed up with a phone call and payment-related emails must be preceded by phone calls to verify details.
• If you make use of electronic records, ensure that you regularly update your antivirus software, backup your information and consider taking out cyber insurance cover.
• Use different passwords across multiple platforms and always use a 2-step verification login, as this adds an additional layer of security and makes it more challenging for cyber criminals to breach your account.

Giving advice over social media

• Always remain cognisant of the HPCSA guidelines relating to confidentiality and patient consent.
• Never share any details relating to a specific medical case (e.g. images, test results and any other identifiable patient information) on any online platform without obtaining your patient’s informed written consent.
• When engaging online with the general public, only share generic information and avoid providing specific medical advice to any person to steer clear of any suggestion of a doctor-patient relationship.
• Include screenshots of relevant online communications with patients in your patient folder.

Responding to online complaints

• In responding to an online patient review, always assert that you are committed to patient satisfaction and encourage dissatisfied patients to contact you directly to try and resolve any issues.
• Respond to all comments, good or bad, as it shows you listen to your patients. The exception is with posts by anonymous people.
• Try not to be too defensive in responding to negative comments.
• Do not use the same generic response to each negative comment, as your response will be seen by everyone who reads your practice’s comments.
• If a patient discloses their personal health information online, including detailed accounts of the care they received, this does not automatically authorise you to discuss aspects of their treatment. You may respond to the criticism by describing your practice’s procedures and standards of care generally, without confirming or denying that the person is your patient.
• If you receive a defamatory Google review or Facebook post concerning your practice, be sure to report the post as inappropriate and contact your professional indemnity provider.

Maintaining professional boundaries with patients

• Try and separate your public and private profiles, by adopting a conservative privacy setting on social media sites.
• Never accept friend requests from former or current patients, as relationships between doctors and patients that are not based around clinical care can raise several significant ethical problems (e.g. doctors become party to information about their patients that is not disclosed as part of the clinical consultation).
• If you prefer not to communicate with patients via a particular social media channel (e.g. WhatsApp) then indicate this upfront to your patients.

Engagement with colleagues
• If you are made aware of the inappropriate online behaviour of a colleague, you should discreetly notify them and suggest that they take down any offending posts before any action is taken against them or their practice.
• If you are part of a WhatsApp group or other online forum, be sure to openly distance yourself from inappropriate comments, as these could negatively affect your reputation and may have consequences for your career.

While you want to create informative and engaging social media content, there are industry regulations and general social media guidelines to follow, to protect yourself, your practice and your patient.

For more information about using social media in the healthcare industry, please contact EthiQal today on 011 686 4200.

Click here to download the HPCSA Booklet 16 – Ethical Guidelines on Social Media PDF

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