Avoid social sins

like unlikeDDU dento-legal adviser, Sue N’Jie, looks at the ethical use of social media and what is expected of dental professionals online.

Social media is a great source of entertainment and professional information, but your ethical responsibilities still apply in the virtual world. The GDC (General Dental Council) covers the issue (www.gdc-uk.org, 2013) directly in both its latest standards document and in supplementary guidance on using social media. Dental professionals should be in no doubt that the regulator will take a firm line with anyone found behaving inappropriately.

Protect confidentiality

It goes without saying that the same rules of confidentiality apply to online and offline discussions. Paragraph 4.2.3 of Standards for the Dental Team (www.gdc-uk.org, 2013) states: ‘You must not post any information or comments about patients on social networking or blogging sites. If you use professional social media to discuss anonymised cases for the purpose of discussing best practice you must be careful that the patient or patients cannot be identified.’ Even if you believe you have removed identifying information, details posted over multiple posts could still be pieced together, so think very carefully about what you disclose.

Sharing images of a patient’s dentition poses particular confidentiality risks. It may be possible to recognise someone from an apparently insignificant detail, so obtain the patient’s prior consent and do everything possible to protect their confidentiality, as described in Standards for the Dental Team.

Maintain boundaries

It may be flattering to receive a friend request from a patient, but the GDC’s supplementary guidance warns dental professionals to ‘think carefully before accepting’. Explaining to the patient you are unable to accept their request because you have an ethical duty to maintain professional boundaries may be less awkward than ‘unfriending’ them later.

Treat others with respect

It can be tempting to let off steam on a forum but the GDC warns that you must treat colleagues with respect and that ‘you must not make personal, inaccurate or derogatory comments about patients or colleagues [in any public media]’ (paragraph 9.1.3) (www.gdc-uk.org, 2013).

Maintain public confidence

Even if you do not identify yourself as a dental professional, an ill-considered comment, an unflattering selfie, even the groups you join could reflect badly on you as a professional.

The GDC warns: ‘As a registrant you have a responsibility to behave professionally and responsibly both online and offline. Your online image can impact on your professional life and you should not post any information, including photographs and videos, which can bring the profession into disrepute’.

Be secure

The GDC says: ‘You should regularly review your privacy settings to ensure that information is not accessed by unintended audiences’ (Guidance on using social media). For example, restrict access to your Facebook profile to ‘friends only’ so you are less visible online. Even with these precautions, remember that everything you post on social media is in the public domain, virtually impossible to delete and can easily be distributed to a wider audience than you originally intended.

For a list of references contact seb.evans@dentistry.co.uk.

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