How will the UK ban on doctors using social media anonymously affect patients?
Simon Oxenham covers the best and the worst from the world of psychology and neuroscience. Formerly writing with the pseudonym "Neurobonkers", Simon has a history of debunking dodgy scientific research and tearing apart questionable science journalism in an irreverent style. Simon has written and blogged for publishers including: The Psychologist, Nature, Scientific American and The Guardian. His work has been praised in the New York Times and The Guardian and described in Pearson's Textbook of Psychology as "excoriating reviews of bad science/studies”.
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First things first - I’m not a doctor, but the surprise new rules issued by the GMC (the British regulator for doctors) still worry me. Not just because I might perhaps one day be a doctor, but because I certainly will one day be a patient. The benefits I receive from writing anonymously allow me the opportunity to challenge authority and argue online one-on-one with powerful people without fearing for my safety or my job or putting myself at risk of casual prejudice. It doesn’t take a genius to see why these might be weapons you might like your doctor not to be dispossessed of.
A couple of examples: only yesterday I called for a fellow writer at this publication to be fired. A blog post I wrote last year resulted in previously undisclosed disclosures of interest being added to published research after publication. I’ve attacked countless quacks and pseudoscientists with deep pockets and called them out directly using social media. All of these things I might have done differently, less publicly or even not at all, if I had not been protected by anonymity. All of these things you might one day wish your doctor to do for you. But for British doctors, these rights are being withdrawn overnight with no prior discussion. Anonymous doctors are currently scrambling, discussing how to proceed, with some already "coming out" on their blogs and on social media:
For doctors who don't want to take the leap, the only option is to go into lockdown. So if you follow doctors on Twitter prepare to see plenty of these:
If you happen to be a doctor writing anonymously please follow me before you put your account in to lockdown, I will try to keep you updated on the situation by retweeting any relevant information I receive.
This in an extremely worrying time for this to occur. British doctors are currently up in arms (if you are in the UK you can join 357,000 others and write to your MP here). Doctors have already raised concerns that complaining publicly about their new privatised employers would breach their new contracts. Doctors have even been made to sign the Official Secrets act as a matter of blanket company policy by at least one private employer - ATOS. According to the BMJ massive changes will occur in three days time, on the 1st April. Worryingly , for the past two years the BBC has failed to provide a platform to doctors - so only those of us who follow doctors directly online are kept completely informed.
At a time when doctors are so worried about what is being done to the health service that some have recently gone as far as forming a political party to oppose the changes - a previously unheard of step, it is worrying that we are curtailing doctors ability to speak out without fear of sacking.
There are many pseudoscientists and charlatans online offering all forms of medical services, but these new rules will not affect these people – as they are not real doctors anyway, so they don’t have to abide by the GMC’s rules. I do however think it right that our doctors should be able to debunk these people and fight changes from on high without compromising their personal information and therefore, potentially their jobs.
Update 09/04/2013: I've posted a follow up to this post here.
Jane O'Brien from the GMC's standards and ethics team on our new social media guidance.
On the 25 March 2013 we published new explanatory guidance on Doctor's use of social media (PDF) alongside the new edition of Good medical practice for all UK doctors.The response from the profession has been lively — particularly about the phrase:
'If you identify yourself as a doctor in publicly accessible social media, you should also identify yourself by name.'
Like all our guidance, Doctors' use of social media describes good practice, not minimum standards. It's not a set of rules.
But the response from the profession shows that doctors are unclear or uncertain about:
We’ve answered these questions below and also provided some background information about how the guidance was developed.
Why identifying yourself as a doctor is good practice?
Patients and the public generally respect doctors and trust their views — particularly about health and healthcare. Identifying yourself as a member of the profession gives credibility and weight to your views. Doctors are accountable for their actions and decisions in other aspects of their professional lives - and their behaviour must not undermine public trust in the profession. So we think doctors who want to express views, as doctors, should say who they are.
What does 'identifying yourself as a doctor' mean in practice?
There is a bit of judgement involved here. For example, if you want to blog about football and incidentally mention that you're a doctor, there is no need to identify yourself if you don't want to.If you're using social media to comment on health or healthcare issues, we think it's good practice to say who you are.In the guidance we say 'you should' rather than 'you must'. We use this language to support doctors exercising their professional judgement. This means we think it is good practice but not that it is mandatory.We've explained the difference in our use of these terms in paragraph 5 of Good medical practice, and at:
We are not restricting doctors' right to express their views and opinions except:
One of the key messages in the guidance is that although social media changes the means of communication, the standards expected of doctors do not change when communicating on social media rather than face to face or through other traditional media (see paragraph 5 of the social media guidance).
Will the GMC take disciplinary action if I decide not to identify myself online?
This is guidance on what we consider to be good practice. Failure to identify yourself online in and of itself will not raise a question about your fitness to practise.Any concern raised is judged on its own merits and the particular circumstances of the case. But a decision to be anonymous could be considered together with other more serious factors, such as bullying or harassing colleagues, or breaching confidentiality (or both) or breaking the law. The guidance doesn't change the threshold for investigating concerns about a doctor's fitness to practise.
Does this guidance apply to personal use?The GMC has no interest in doctors' use of social media in their personal lives — Tweets, blogs, Facebook pages etc. But doctors mustn’t undermine public trust in the profession. Usually this means breaking the law, even where the conviction is unrelated to their professional life. For an example, read the recent Fitness to Practise Panel decision on the MPTS web page (PDF).
Why can't I raise concerns anonymously in social media? We are not trying to restrict discussion about important issues relating to patient safety and certainly don't want to discourage doctors from raising concerns.However, we wouldn't encourage doctors to do so via social media because ultimately it's not private and it might well be missed by the people or organisations who are able to take action to protect patients.Our confidential helpline — where you can speak to an advisor anonymously — enables doctors to seek advice on issues they may be dealing with and to raise serious concerns about patient safety when they feel unable to do this at local level. Our Confidential Helpline number is 0161 923 6399.
If you want to talk to an independent organisation, we work with Public Concern at Work whose legal advisors are trained in managing whistleblowing calls. They can support and direct doctors who wish to raise concerns.
Why do publications like the BMJ allow anonymous blogs/letters articles? Does the guidance mean they can't do that anymore?BMJ is entirely independent of the GMC, and it is a matter for them to decide what is appropriate for their website. However the Committee on Publication Ethics considered a case and published their conclusions at
Many blogs are published without formal editorial or publisher control — although there may be moderation on some sites. Using your name (or other identifying information) provides some transparency and accountability.
How did we consult on the guidance?We consulted on the explanatory guidance in 2012 and wrote to all registered doctors via our publication GMC News in May 2012 asking them to tell us their thoughts on the draft social media guidance. As part of this public consultation, we received 80 responses from organisations and individuals (with 49 of the individual respondents identifying themselves as doctors). Specifically we asked whether it was reasonable for us to say that doctors should usually identify themselves when using social media in a professional capacity and 63% (49 respondents) agreed while 16 respondents disagreed and 13 were unsure. 39 of those who responded commented on this point.Some of the responses from doctors in the consultation included:
'Doctors should take ownership of information given in a professional capacity as it is important that we are accountable for our professional actions.'
'Too often, people hide behind usernames on internet and on social media — if you have something to say, don't be a coward.'
Patients groups also felt that being open and honest when communicating online was important saying:
'Doctors should also be conscious of the widespread access to much social media, e.g. Twitter, which could mean that their social media engagement could endanger public confidence in the profession.'
Of course, some expressed the opposite view including:
'A doctor should be able to state that they are a medical professional without having to publicise their personal data. For example, when commenting on an online article it may be relevant that the comments come from a doctor but it should not require full identity disclosure. Where a comment is formal and part of a professional role, it would be more reasonable to expect identity disclosure.'
What does the final guidance say?
So after careful consideration of all the views and the arguments on both sides the final guidance says:
If you identify yourself as a doctor in publicly accessible social media, you should also identify yourself by name. Any material written by authors who represent themselves as doctors is likely to be taken on trust and may reasonably be taken to represent the views of the profession more widely.
What's happened since we published?
We acknowledge the level and strength of feeling the petition represents. However, there is nothing in the guidance that restricts doctors' freedom of speech online or stops them from raising concerns. The guidance is a statement of good practice, and the paragraph on anonymity in the guidance is framed as 'you should'; rather than 'you must'; to support doctors exercising their professional judgement.
Image Credit: Shutterstock/ImageryMajestic
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