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NHS staff rapped for gossiping about patients on Facebook

Dozens of warnings and sackings over growing web misuse

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Improper use of social media, especially Facebook, is leading to disciplinary action against staff at a number of English trusts.

Figures released to Guardian Healthcare show that 72 separate actions were carried out by 16 trusts against staff who inappropriately used social media between 2008-09 and October 2011.

The data, released in response to freedom of information (FoI) requests, reveals Facebook to be the main medium for misdemeanours. The largest number of incidents took place in 2010-11, indicating the growing use of social media and the difficulties it presents to the NHS.

Guardian Healthcare sent out FoI requests to 25 of the biggest NHS trusts in England by number of employees, asking how many members of staff had received warnings or dismissals for improper use of social media over the past three years. We also asked for examples of improper use from each year. 18 of the trusts replied, with two saying they could not provide the information as they did not collate the outcomes and it would require an extensive search. Seven did not respond at all.

Newcastle Upon Tyne foundation trust, one of the largest in the UK, carried out the most actions against staff, with 16 warnings issued and two dismissals over the last three years. One example involved a member of staff having "an inappropriate conversation" via Facebook about a confidential work matter. Another derived from staff making inappropriate comments about patient care and a manager on the site.

University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire trust disclosed seven actions against staff for misusing social media since the start of the 2008-9 financial year, while Nottingham University hospitals logged seven actions since the start of 2010-11. Neither trust disclosed the nature of these actions.

Central Manchester University hospitals foundation trust recorded six actions over the last three financial years, including five warnings and one dismissal. Cases included an administrator and a nurse making inappropriate comments about patients on Facebook, and "a nurse taking pictures of workplace and posting on Facebook".

Hull and East Yorkshire hospitals trust recorded just two actions over the last three years, both of them warnings. The incidents involved a nurse being reprimanded for "inappropriately posting a photograph with comments", and a member of staff posting messages on an internet forum with comments which could be construed as breaching the trust's information governance policy.

The nature of the incidents should be of particular interest to the health service. For example, Leeds Teaching Hospitals trust recorded 11 instances where it it took action against its employees between 2009-10 and 2010-11 (it did not store the information centrally before this date), one of which involved a member of staff making excessive and inappropriate use of Facebook during work time.

NHS reacts to staff web abuse

In response to the potential for misuse, a number of NHS organisations have filtered or restricted access to the internet. However, earlier this year the British Medical Association (BMA) and the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) issued stern guidance making clear that the onus should be on healthcare professionals to have a better understanding of the use of social media in order to avoid misuse.

The BMA's guidance to its members states that:

  • It is inappropriate to post informal, personal or derogatory comments about patients or colleagues on public internet forums.
  • The ethical and legal duty to protect patient confidentiality applies equally on the internet as to other media.

It also warns doctors and medical students about the dangers of getting too close to patients through social media.

Similarly, the Department of Health (DH) said last month that it had issued "clear standards and guidance" to the NHS about keeping patient records secure and confidential. It was responding to figures released to privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch, which showed a number of the 806 data breaches reported by 152 trusts over the last three years involved the misuse of social media.

There are no plans at present for the government to issue national guidance on the issue. A spokeswoman for the DH told Guardian Healthcare that it is up to individual bodies to do so, and that some such as the BMA and the NMC have already issued guidance. But she said that all trusts should follow this guidance to ensure staff are aware of possible breaches.

This article was originally published at Guardian Professional. Join the Guardian Healthcare Network to receive regular emails on NHS innovation.

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