The rapid growth and widespread use of social media has changed the way many people communicate and share information. Social media include various websites such as Facebook and Twitter which are the two most popular social networking providers, video sharing websites like YouTube, a variety of blogs which enable users to post their own articles and allow visitors to leave feedback, discussion forums and other social networking platforms of communication that people can use for educational or other purposes.
In recent years a huge number of people around the world have become active users of social media. Network of Global Agenda Councils Reports (2011-2012) showed that worldwide more than 1.2 billion of people use social media, a number that accounts for 82% of all internet users around the world (Councils, 2012). Many of these users explore internet in order to access medical information and other to share their concerns about health related issues or to seek out medical treatment. Furthermore many healthcare professionals such as physicians, pharmacists and nurses use social media as a platform of communication to promote patient health and safety as well as an education tool (Frances Griffiths, 2012).
However irresponsible and misuse use of social media can result to a number of unpleasant situations. Both healthcare providers and patients should be aware of the risks of using social platforms of communication. Potential risks among others include the breach of personal data, the publication of poor quality medical information and the underestimation concerning the seriousness of a situation from a healthcare professional either due to lack of adequate information or due to provision of incorrect or inaccurate data provided by a patient during an online consultation (Harlow, 2012).
In UK there is not any specific guidance provided from the Health and Care Professions Council, but it has been made clear that social media should be used within the relevant standards of conduct, performance and ethics. It recognises that social networking is a valuable way to communicate and share information but also points out that the healthcare professionals who will decide to use it as part of their work must make sure that will behave with honesty and integrity for the best interest of the public protecting patient confidentiality and exhibiting their professionalism at all times (Health Professions Council Newsletter: Issue 34 – April 2011).
Nevertheless in the past have been reported many incidents of inappropriate use of social media and unprofessional behaviour where patient’s personal data disclosed on the internet without their consent or cases where patients offended because of comments made from other users related to their health status. Guardian reported that between 2008 and 2011, were carried out 72 separate actions by 16 trusts against staff for inappropriate use of social media. Some of these cases were related to the breach of personal data and some other were associated either with posting of racists or sex comments or with sharing of inappropriate pictures and videos through public internet forums. These incidences encouraged British Medical Association to provide guidance to its members about how to use social media in an appropriate way. (Laja, 2011).
The use of social media allows patients to interact with healthcare professionals in a rapid and cost-effective way. Also gives them the ability to participate on their own care in order to manage their health and monitor their treatment by having quick access to medical journals and having view of different treatment options before and during consultation from their doctor and by using health related online applications. Likewise social media used from healthcare professionals to connect with individuals from different geographical areas in order to contribute on their health improvement by providing them with medical documents and by creating discussion forums on health related topics. This advantage gave them the opportunity to expand their activities introducing new services such as the online consultation and the provision of different treatment options at low cost. There are cases where social media used to promote communication both among patients and among Healthcare Professionals. Patients have the ability to share their concerns and discuss about common diseases or possible medical treatments and on the other hand Healthcare Professionals are enabled to share information, experiences and ideas supporting their lifelong learning (KPMG, 2011).
Some social networking platforms are free to the public but to some other the patients will have to pay if they need an online consultation by a healthcare professional or if they wish to discuss and share their concerns with other healthcare providers or other patients that suffering from the same condition. In UK operate websites like NetDoctor.co.uk which is provided and operated by National Health Service (NHS) and offer a wide range of services such as pregnancy email service and online doctor diagnosis from registered UK-based General practitioners, discussion forums and online applications like symptom checker that help patients to get a better understanding of their healthcare needs. NHS in UK uses social media in order to improve public health by providing health related information through NHS choices. Also it has been integrated to other social media such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to promote its services and offer a broad spectrum of applications. For instance online healthy life style advisor, smoking secession programmes and body mass index (BMI) health weight calculator.
These services and applications enable patients to decide whether or not they require visiting a doctor for further advice retaining their privacy. However this way of communication can be very ineffective, as examining and interpreting medical notes without the availability of a full medical history and with the absence of physical exams can be a serious threat to the patient (Britton, 2012). In addition diagnosis can become unreliable due to lack of information and accuracy of data provided by the patient or due to underestimation of the seriousness of the situation, making online consultation inferior to a face to face consultation.
Internet usage statistics showed that the adults that are active users of Facebook and Twitter in UK come to 37.4 million and 15.5 million respectively (Ayres, 2012). Considering this amount of people it is easy to understand how important is for Healthcare Professionals to use social media wisely and with professionalism.
Inappropriate use of social media can affect healthcare’s personal and professional life. Many of them choose to disclose patient’s personal data for maintaining an easily accessible online medical record for personal use but they are unaware that many of that information (including videos or pictures) they upload on the internet in some cases can be accessed, used and spread from the general public without control (Thompson LA, 2008).
It is therefore Healthcare professional’s ethical and legal responsibility to protect patient confidentiality at all times on the internet as well as to other media. Some social networking platforms give the ability to the users to set privacy settings in order to prevent uncontrolled distribution of data and to put restrictions to individuals seeking access to information that have been chosen to be kept private (Thompson LA, 2008).
However concerns have been raised in the past related to protection of personal data. Many social networks upload and share data without considering any legal or ethical considerations. Publishing personal information of patients without their consent can result to legal implications. In UK Data Protection Act limits healthcare providers from disclosing any personal information without patient consent with few exemptions. According Data Protection Act (1998) all personal data should be fairly and lawfully processed, they should be used for limited and specific purposes in a way that is adequate, relevant and not excessive, they should be accurate, held up to date and for no longer than its necessary and finally should be kept safe and not transferred to countries without adequate date protection.
Nowadays social media have become an integral part of our lives. General public uses them to obtain health related information, to connect with other users with the intention to discuss issues concerning their health, to get educated by reading medical documents so that will get a better understanding of their condition or their disease and to pursue new treatment options in a fast and inexpensive way. Social media have also become an essential way for healthcare professionals to provide their services in order to improve and monitor patient needs such as the online consultation. On the other hand the rapid and uncontrolled sharing of information can result to potential risks and have negative impact to the provision of health care and personal lives of both patients and healthcare professionals. Breach of personal data protection, publication of untrustworthy medical documents and faulty consultation due to lack of evidence can be some of the pitfalls that users may face.
In order to avoid these drawbacks both patients and healthcare professionals need to understand the limitations of the use of social media. Creating bounds between personal and professional use of social media is essential. Healthcare professionals who choose to interact with patients online must maintain appropriate boundaries concerning the relations between them. For instance, they should not discuss about health related matters on a friendly but only on a professional level.
Additionally in order to ensure that high quality information is provided and that a conversation between a patient and a healthcare professional will have a positive outcome, both of them must build a relationship of trust by being precise and honest to each other regarding the information they share. This will cause the patient to capitalize on the doctor’s consultation appropriately and follow essential tips for a better result and will make it easier to healthcare professional to give the most appropriate advice. Also in my opinion healthcare professionals should only share medical documents that based on scientific studies while patients should consult their health provider before taking any action based on information obtained using social media.
There are personal data that should not be allowed to be shared through social media as it is very likely patients to be offended. So individuals who use social networking platforms, especially for medical purposes should be able to consider whether is safe or not to share their data with the public. Healthcare professionals must recognize that they have an ethical and legal obligation to maintain patient privacy and confidentiality at all times and need to be aware that social media cannot be completed safe for protecting the information they share. For this reason they should use social networking platforms that privacy settings can be set and are secure to the highest level.
Finally I believe that healthcare professionals should be restricted from disclosing patient personal information on public internet forums and any health related data should be safeguarded and be disclosed only to the patient or other healthcare professionals if it’s necessary and only for the use of medical purposes and with the consent of the patient.