Ethical Responsibility

Policy statement adapted from Social Media Guidance BMA (2011)

Ethical responsibilities and social media

Patient confidentiality

Social media, through blogs and web forums, can provide dentists and dental students with a space in which they can discuss their experiences within clinical practice. As material published on the internet often exists in the public domain however, it is important that health professionals exercise caution when discussing any details relating to specific dental cases. Dentists and dental students have a legal and ethical duty to protect patient confidentiality. Disclosing identifiable information about patients without consent on blogs, forums or social networking sites would constitute a breach of General Dedical Council (GDC) standards and could give rise to legal complaints from patients. GMC/GDC guidance highlights that many improper disclosures are unintentional and reminds medical professionals that they should not share identifiable information about patients where it may be overheard, including in internet forums.

Although individual pieces of information may not alone breach patient confidentiality, the sum of published information could be sufficient to identify a patient or their relatives. Dental students who wish to publish details about specific cases or clinical experiences online, which identify or run the risk of identifying a patient, should ensure they follow the guidelines relating to patient consent and disclosure set out by the GMC. The BMA also provides extensive guidance for doctors/dentists on confidentiality.

Appropriate discussions of patients and practice

While discussion about patients and clinical experiences amongst colleagues online can have both educational and professional benefit, informal discussion about patients on public internet forums should be avoided. It would be particularly inappropriate for dental professionals to make personal or derogatory comments about their patients or colleagues. Even where dental students post anonymously and are confident that what they say will not breach patient confidentiality, they should consider how such comments will reflect on themselves as future dentists and bear in mind the potential impact they could have on the public’s trust in the dental profession as a whole.

Defamation

It is important that dental professionals are able to engage fully in debates about issues that affect their professional lives and increasingly the internet is the forum in which this discourse takes place. The freedom that individuals have to voice their opinions on forums and blogs however is not absolute and can be restricted by the need to prevent harm to the rights and reputations of others.

Defamation law can apply to any comments posted on the web, irrespective of whether they are made in a personal or professional capacity. Defamation is the act of making an unjustified statement about a person or organisation that is considered to harm their reputation. If an individual makes a statement that is alleged to be defamatory, it could result in legal action against the individual and the organisation they are representing. People can often feel less inhibited when posting comments online and as a result may say things they would not express in other circumstances. Posting comments under a username does not guarantee anonymity as any comments made online can be traced back to the original author. Dental students need to exercise sound judgement when posting online and avoid making gratuitous, unsubstantiated or unsustainable negative comments about individuals or organisations.

Professionalism and social media

Binding professional duties that dentists and students have to their patients are set out in GDC guidance; breaches of these standards while using social media, such as improper disclosures of patient information, represent clear cases of professional misconduct that can call into question the fitness to practise of a dental student. Dental professionalism however also encompasses a broader, less well-defined set of standards that lie outside the scope of GDC regulations. These principles have evolved with dental practice over time and, while not legally binding, they represent the standards of conduct broadly expected of health professionals by their dental peers and society. Although the way dental professionals use social media in their private lives is a matter for their own personal judgement, dental students should consider whether the content they upload onto the internet could compromise public confidence in the dental profession.

Dental students have certain privileges and responsibilities different from those of other students. Because of this, different standards of professional behaviour are expected of them. Dental schools are responsible for ensuring that dental students have opportunities to learn and practise the standards expected of them.

Key points:

• Social media can blur the boundary between an individual’s public and professional lives

• Dentak students should consider adopting conservative privacy settings where these

are available but be aware that not all information can be protected on the web

• The ethical and legal duty to protect patient confidentiality applies equally on the internet as to

other media

• It would be inappropriate to post informal, personal or derogatory comments about patients or

colleagues on public internet forums

• Dental students who post online have an ethical obligation to declare any conflicts

of interest

• Defamation law can apply to any comments posted on the web made in either a personal or

professional capacity

• Dental students should be conscious of their online image and how it may impact

on their professional standing