The use - and misuse - of social media can have unfortunate repercussions for medical students

In summary:

  • Familiarise yourself with and check/amend the privacy settings on any social media platform you use.
  • Assume anything you post can and will be seen by anyone ad infinitum, regardless of your privacy settings.
  • Never post when you are angry, tired or otherwise impaired.
  • Avoid making any comments about employers and colleagues.
  • Remember your duty of confidentiality to patients. If you do discuss cases in online forums you must make sure that patients can't be identified.
  • Read and digest the GMC's guidance on the subject ('Doctors' use of social media', 2013).

There's no doubt that social media plays an integral part in our everyday lives. Despite what you might think of Facebook status updates and Instagram selfies, it's a fact that social media is filtering its way into the professional sphere, with the boundaries between personal and professional lives becoming ever more blurred.

This is of increasing concern to the medical profession, and not just because of the potential hazards to patients and care. It's particularly relevant to those who are just embarking on their careers. The trouble with the internet is that once something ends up there, it stays there.

A spur of the moment tweet or thoughtless post can come back to haunt the hapless poster further down the line. One famous example from 2009 involved a group of junior doctors who posted pictures of themselves 'planking' whilst on duty. This may have been intended as harmless fun, but the doctors were suspended despite the fact that it didn't involve patients and patient care wasn't affected.

Anti-social media?

The potential pitfalls of social media are made worse because it's so quick and simple to access. It can be all too easy to post disparaging remarks about employers or colleagues after or even during a particularly tough day, or to forget to un-tag yourself in that photo where your friends 'hilariously' covered you in shaving foam and drew on your face after you fell asleep at a party.

It's worth remembering that employers may well look through prospective applicants' social media profiles as part of their screening process. What they discover could influence the impression they form about an applicant, and suddenly that shaving foam incident looks far less amusing.

With this in mind, it's vital that you have a solid understanding of the privacy settings of any social media platform you use. Always remember, however, that no matter how good your privacy is, nothing on the internet is ever truly hidden. The only sure way to guarantee that your private life does not affect your professional life is to be very careful about the content that finds its way online in the first place.

This page was correct at publication on 13/08/2015. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.