Monday, 1 April 2013

The GMC on doctors and the social media

The GMC's guidance on doctors' use of the social media has attracted much comment and for very good reason. I would firstly urge anyone to actually read the GMC's full guidance before commenting, I have done and here is my two pence worth.

Firstly I think guidance has to be clear to be interpretable or meaningful, and this is one area in which the GMC's guidance badly falls down.  There are numerous elements to their guidance which are poorly defined and consequently extremely vague in terms of meaning.  When treating 'colleagues' fairly and with respect, what is a 'colleague'?  Most people would see a ‘colleague’ as someone one has come into direct face to face or telephone contact with in the workplace about a clinical matter, not a random person encountered on the web about a non clinical matter.  Also 'fairly and with respect', what does this mean?  The social media sees numerous very different people interact, people are routinely offended, often unintentionally, and this is a huge can of worms in itself.  Here is another massive vaguery:

"You must make sure that your conduct justifies your patients’ trust in you and the public’s trust in the profession."

This is so vague and so incredibly subject to the interpretation.  Why on earth should a doctor's conduct in their private life, as long as it is within the law, have to be any different to that of a general member of the public?  Personally I think the GMC's guidance in this regard rides roughshod over the Human Rights Act, which clearly states that all of us have a right to a private life.  Conduct in the workplace is different, but this is contact in the private lives of doctors that the GMC is referring to, and do they have any right to offer this guidance?  I think not.  It is akin to regulating how we behave on the sports field, with our children or at a social event.  Arguably the most contentious piece of guidance refers to 'confidentiality':

"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."

This piece of guidance is based on foundations of sand.  For one thing it is rather insulting that the GMC assumes that the general public are so stupid that they take everything said by a doctor as being the complete truth, this borders on the nonsensical for me.  It is also ludicrous to assume that the views of one individual doctor will be taken to represent the views of the profession.  Also how does being named help with these stated problems?  It doesn’t and it shows that the GMC may well be hiding the real, potentially more sinister, motives for clamping down on our anonymous use of the social media.

Overall I am deeply unimpressed with the GMC's guidance.  I took the choice a long time ago that I would not be anonymous in the social media, however I can appreciate that for many people this is not possible, for example it is impossible for psychiatrists given their job, it is also impossible for those who are effectively whistle blowing online, there are many other good examples of where doctors must keep their anonymity online or risk serious physical harm to them or their families.  The GMC's logic for doctors having to name themselves in the social media is weak and arguably incoherent.  Most seriously the GMC appears to be paying scant regard for the rights of doctors to have a private life that is free from the interference of government or regulatory bodies, as laid out in the Human Rights Act, and this kind of disdain for the rights of doctors shows the GMC up in a very bad light indeed.  I am very deeply unimpressed. 

ps I would also urge everyone to sign this petition which urges the Department of Health to rethink this invasion into the private lives of health care staff


Anne Marie Cunningham said...

It feels to me that professional guidance has to be vague. How could it specify every situation? In the past the GMC used to specify what we shouldn't do but then moved into new territory in 1995 with the publication of Good Medical Practice. Now they aimed to tell us and the public what could be expected from a good doctor.

Petitioning the Department of Health has struck me as odd. Is the DH trusted more by doctors as a fair arbitrator than the GMC?

Anyway, a few posts posts
on my blog about the GMC- I think you have commented on a few.

Julie said...

I think it's deliberately vague, so that the GMC can interpret it any way it likes, I'm afraid. My advice - stay anonymous if you are anonymous and let a non-medic or ex-medic host your site for you.

ben said...

It has to be vague?


The point is they should not be telling doctors what they can and cannot do in their private lives.

Hence there should be zero guidance on what doctors do in their private lives, otherwise they are riding roughshod over the human rights act.

The GMC guidance is stupid and totalitarian, there simply is no other sensible way of looking at it.