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A social media policy for practice staff

Practices' social networking policies should apply whether staff are in the surgery or at home, writes Fiona Dalziel.

Social media blurs personal and professional boundaries (Image: iStock)
Social media blurs personal and professional boundaries (Image: iStock)

Medical defence organisations are increasingly identifying risks to the practice and to individual healthcare professionals from social media.

So how should your practice tackle writing a social media policy that goes beyond internet and email use? 

You do not need to create a social media policy from scatch. GPs may be able to get a specimen policy from their medical indemnity provider and ACAS also has guidance.

Make sure, however, your practice’s policy covers:

  • Accessing social media in the workplace.
  • Misuse of social media and monitoring employees’ accounts.
  • Privacy.
  • Guidance on what to post/not to post.

Workplace access

With an in-house server, decide whether to block access to certain web sites such as Facebook, Twitter and other similar sites. If the sites are not blocked for access because the practice has its own Facebook page or Twitter account to consider you need to consider a policy for staff accessing such sites during the working day.

With an externally managed server it is likely that these sites are automatically blocked. However, staff can access social media on their smartphones and you should decide when/if access while at work is allowed.

Monitoring staff accounts

Employers may have a right to monitor social media usage under the Data Protection Act. This will feel threatening to staff and so consult with them fully before implementing such a policy.

They will want an explanation on why you want do this and so need to be reassured that monitoring may only take place with their full knowledge. The practice must have a genuine cause to monitor social media usage undertaken in personal time - see below for circumstances that may justify this.

Your policy should include the action the practice will take if social media is misused. It must make clear that comments posted in a private capacity in the employee’s own time, if they have a bearing on the workplace, could lead to disciplinary action including dismissal.

Tracking absent staff

Avoid using a member of staff's postings on Facebook or Twitter, for example, to track what they are doing during sickness absence. Their colleagues may inform you, but proceed with caution and get legal  advice.

Specific guidance on monitoring, including on how to make an ‘impact assessment’ is in the Information Commissioner’s Employment Practices Data Protection Code.

Also see the BMA’s Using social media guidance which has practical and ethical advice for doctors and medical students.

Privacy

All social media sites have options to keep posts and comments private. Your policy should encourage all colleagues, especially clinicians, to apply the highest level of privacy on their accounts and it should include guidance on what type of material could be risky to post.

Make clear to staff that they:

  • Must not post detrimental comments about the practice, colleagues, patients or suppliers.
  • Must not post material that could identify a patient and breach their confidentiality. There have been instances of doctors posting anecdotes about patients where the circumstances are unique and the patients were identifiable.
  • Must not post material, such as financial information that could breach the confidentiality of the practice as a business.
  • Must not post pictures of colleagues or patients online. Medical staff members at a hospital were recently disciplined for photographing each other lying on pieces of equipment and other bizarre places and posting the pictures.
  • Must not post obscene or vulgar material and should avoid swearing.
  • Must not comment or blog that raises unfounded fears about medication or treatments
  • If commenting in a post or blog where the practice is mentioned as the employer, staff must make their view is personal.
  • If commenting or blogging, clinicians especially must only post professionally appropriate comments.
  • If responding to public criticism, GMC advice states doctors should limit this to an explanation of their legal and professional duty of confidentiality.

Appropriate ‘friends'

Social media have blurred boundaries between the personal and professional so your policy should contain guidance on whom it is appropriate to befriend.

GPs who are employers and practice managers should avoid being ‘friends’ with employees and maintain a professional distance as private information may be revealed to a wide audience.

Doctors and nurses working at the practice should not befriend patients or accept ‘friends’ requests from them. As well as ethical issues, there is a risk of the patient discovering personal information about the doctor and of the doctor discovering clinically relevant information not revealed during a consultation. Any approach through social media deemed inappropriate or sexual in nature should be treated as if the interaction happened in person and appropriate action should be taken to re-establish a professional boundary.

Practices should bear in mind that if they screen job candidates’ social media sites and then reject a candidate for a reason related to what they saw, they could be open to claims of unfair discrimination.

When monitoring is appropriate 

The following circumstances may trigger monitoring and should be clearly stated in your social media policy:

  • Bringing the practice into disrepute by posting a comment or picture, An employee has an implied duty of fidelity in the contract of employment. This extends into an employee’s off-duty time.The employee should be asked to remove offending the post(s).
  • If this does not work, the organisation running the site should be approached and, it does not remove the post, an injunction may be considered if the content is indeed defamatory.
  • If the employee has genuine complaints about work, then the content may not be defamatory, and practices should take advice before proceeding with disciplinary action.
  • Evidence of cyber-bullying sometimes called ‘trolling’, a recent example is the offensive remarks posted about Olympian Tom Daley for which a 17-year-old was arrested.  Cyber-bullying is unacceptable or unwanted behaviour carried out by different means from a face to face encounter.
  • Bullying, intimidation or victimisation of colleagues or patients using blogs, photographs or offensive or threatening comments.
  • Social exclusion: bullying by way of exerting pressure to become someone’s ‘friend’, or deliberately excluding a colleague who is not a ‘friend’.

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