Doctors get new guidelines on using social media

Under an updated code, doctors are told not to initiate social media relationships with patients or compromise privacy.
Under an updated code, doctors are told not to initiate social media relationships with patients or compromise privacy. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Under updated code, they are told not to initiate social media relationships with patients or compromise privacy

Doctors, you may not add your patients as friends on Facebook.

And if your patients try to do so, you can accept the requests, but do not share anything that might compromise their privacy or jeopardise your own professionalism.

These were among the new guidelines on social media use for medical professionals under the updated Ethical Code and Ethical Guidelines released by the Singapore Medical Council (SMC) yesterday.

"Social media is now part of everyday life and doctors use it as well," said Dr Tan Chi Chiu, chairman of the working committee for the review of the guidelines.

He added that the guidelines needed to reflect this, among other developments, but that "the principles of protecting patient confidentiality and doctors maintaining professional conduct remain the same".

The guidelines, which were last revised in 2002, were updated to keep up with a "more complex" medical practice due to advanced technology, innovative communication, new modes of treatment, a wide range of organisational and business models in medicine, as well as changing patient expectations, said the SMC.

PART OF LIFE

Social media is now part of everyday life and doctors use it as well.

DR TAN CHI CHIU, chairman of the working committee for the review of the Ethical Code and Ethical Guidelines.

LAST RESORT

I have responded to repeat patients' WhatsApp messages about their (medical) condition, but it's only a last resort.

DR SAM WONG, a general practitioner with Parkway Shenton Group, on using social media.

E-MAIL PREFERRED

I mostly get general inquiries about the clinic through e-mail and follow-up questions from repeat patients that don't need a medical diagnosis.

DR LEE KWOK KEONG, a general practitioner at Avenue K Clinic in Punggol, who does not give out his mobile number to patients.

  • SOME GUIDELINES

  • TELEMEDICINE

    • Medical professionals should have sufficient training.

    • They should obtain sufficient information to treat the patient.

    • Practitioners and patients should be duly qualified and experienced to provide and follow remote guidance respectively.

  • AESTHETIC PROCEDURES

    • Practitioners should not exploit patients' vulnerabilities or insecurities about self-esteem or their perceptions of body image through advertisements.

    • They should not mislead the public into thinking they are aesthetic specialists as aesthetic medicine is not a recognised speciality.

  • PERSONAL BELIEFS

    • These are beliefs held by doctors on a personal basis, for example, religious beliefs, and not those that generally guide doctors in managing patients.

    • Medical professionals ought not take advantage of their position to promote, persuade or foist their personal beliefs on patients.

    • If doctors' personal beliefs interfere with their management of patients, they ought to explain this to patients so that they understand the doctors' point of view and why they decline to treat patients.

  • END-OF-LIFE CARE

    • Doctors must ensure that the welfare of patients is not compromised, their autonomy is preserved, their best interests are upheld, and they do not suffer harm inappropriate to their clinical conditions and the natural course of disease.

    Felicia Choo

Under the new guidelines, medical practitioners should not initiate social media relationships with patients.

But if patients initiate such contact with them, they can respond - with the earlier mentioned caveats in mind.

This is to prevent other people from having access to confidential medical matters discussed on social media platforms, according to the new guidelines.

Patients may also be put in a position where they feel pressurised or obliged to engage with practitioners, said the guidelines.

In fact, even if no medical information is shared online, medical confidentiality may be breached if the information is shared in a way that allows others to find out about the doctor-patient relationship.

Social media platforms include Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, online forums, Web chat sites and blogs, and refer to websites and applications that enable users to create and share content and network socially, said Dr Tan.

Doctors who The Straits Times spoke to said they rarely use social media for professional matters, and are careful about the information shared with patients in the event that they use it.

"I have responded to repeat patients' WhatsApp messages about their (medical) condition, but it's only a last resort," said Dr Sam Wong, a general practitioner with Parkway Shenton Group.

Dr Lee Kwok Keong, a general practitioner at Avenue K Clinic in Punggol, does not give out his mobile number to patients, preferring to use e-mail instead.

"I mostly get general inquiries about the clinic through e-mail and follow-up questions from repeat patients that don't need a medical diagnosis," he said.

His clinic has a Facebook page but does not use the messaging function to communicate with patients.

Besides the social media provisions, the guidelines have also been updated for aesthetic practice and telemedicine, the practice of using telecommunication and information technology to provide healthcare services or information beyond geographical or legal borders.

The revised ethical code and guidelines will take effect on Jan 1 next year.

An accompanying SMC handbook on medical ethics has additional material on the code and guidelines.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 15, 2016, with the headline 'Doctors get new guidelines on using social media'. Print Edition | Subscribe