A medical student faced a social media backlash after posting a video which appeared to give advice on dietary and lifestyle changes that might help patients diagnosed with cancer. People including other doctors started to comment under the post that it wasn’t appropriate for the student to post this content; much of it was unproven and some suggested they should be reported to their medical school.
The student wasn’t sure what to do – should they respond or delete the post?
After looking online for some answers, the student decided to email the MDU for advice.
Medical influencers – the benefits and limitations
We are increasingly getting queries about the potential pitfalls of being a medical ‘influencer’
There are many benefits to medical professionals engaging with social media. It can be an invaluable method of reaching patients and the public with health education from those who have the appropriate knowledge to give it.
It can encourage people to engage with health care professionals when they otherwise wouldn’t; raise awareness of public health campaigns; and actually enhance the image of, and the trust in, the profession if done right.
It is widely accepted that social media is an important tool both professionally and personally and it can be used to improve patient care. However, medical students and doctors need to be very mindful about what they post and how this may appear to others.
Social media is becoming increasingly ubiquitous worldwide and currently there are over 50 million users in the UK. If social media was devoid of qualified health professionals, it leaves a void where health misinformation goes unchallenged by those best placed to do so.
Despite the advantages social media brings, there are some potential pitfalls that come with being a medical influencer. Find out more about being a medical influencer.
GMC guidance on using social media
The GMC’s guidance Good medical practice, states that you must recognise and work within the limits of your competence (paragraph 14). In keeping with this, you will need to be sure that what you are posting about. If it’s medical, it should be an area you are appropriately qualified in and knowledgeable about.
The GMC also expects doctors to be able to substantiate and justify anything they write. It’s important to take reasonable steps to make sure any information you provide is correct and should not leave out things that are relevant.
The GMC has also published guidance on doctors’ use of social media and is clear that even online, doctors’ conduct should justify patients’ trust in you and the public’s trust in the profession. In addition to considering your expertise when posting advice or opinions on medical matters, you will also need to consider if other content is appropriate.
The adviser responding to the student suggested it was important to consider the guidance mentioned above. Did the student believe they were working within their competence and knowledge?
It’s worth remembering there are risks associated with social media. It is widely accepted that social media is an important tool both professionally and personally and it can be used to improve patient care. However, medical students and doctors need to be very mindful about what they post and how this may appear to others.
When posting online, it’s worth considering the impact of the following points.
- Are you protecting patient confidentiality?
- Are you making it clear you are not providing medical advice to individuals over social media?
- Are you being upfront about your credentials?
- Are you considering how your comments reflect on the medical profession?
- Are you making sure your comments are not discriminatory or derogatory?
- Are your comments professional?
- Can you substantiate your comments?
The adviser suggested that in the future the student consider these questions when they produce or publish content online.
With regard to the contentious post, the adviser asked the student if, on reflection, they felt they had the requisite knowledge and experience to be posting such content. The student felt that although initially they had posted this as a personal opinion piece, they had not appreciated the responsibility that comes with posting when you identify yourself as a member of the medical profession.
They decided to remove the post with an apology follow up post, explaining in hindsight and after feedback from their peers they appreciated they were not an expert on the topic they had posted on. They had not realised that some may rely on their posts for medical advice and they would endeavour to do better for their followers in future.
This is a fictional case.
Dr Ellie Mein
Dr Ellie Mein
MB ChB MRCOphth GDL LLM
Ellie joined the MDU as a medico-legal adviser in 2013. Prior to this she worked as an ophthalmologist before completing her Graduate Diploma in Law in Birmingham.
See more by Dr Ellie Mein