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Doctors must be trained to avoid web blab blunders, says group

Put down the smartphone, stethoscope boy

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A stray tweet could bring the whole medical profession into disrepute, a body that advises doctors on legal and ethical issues has warned.

That means docs should be taught how to safely use Facebook, Twitter and even Google+ during their compulsory ethics training, according to the Medical Protection Society (MPS) in response to a General Medical Council consultation on good practice.

MPS head of medical services Dr Nick Clements highlighted that a third of 1,250 society members polled in a survey used Facebook daily.

"It is all too easy for boundaries between our professional and private lives to become blurred," he said. Even describing a course of treatment could lead to a breach of trust: "Posting inappropriate comments or describing a patient’s care could lead to a breach of confidentially, damage to a doctor’s reputation and can harm the doctor-patient relationship."

Twitter brings even greater dangers: a single tweet could wreak havoc, Clements reckoned:

Although only one in five (21 per cent) of MPS survey respondents said they used Twitter, it is the potential for a single comment to cause such widespread offence or problems that can impact on the doctor’s reputation and possibly even the medical profession as a whole.

Doctors have to behave on Facebook just as they would in the wards, said the MPS. That includes what docs say in web comments as well, according to the comprehensive recommendations:

This advice is not just for doctors using social networking websites such as Twitter, Facebook and Google+, but doctors’ forums and blogs such as doctors.net.uk. Doctors should remember that the same standards of professionalism and confidentiality apply no matter what the medium of communication

Doctors were also warned that being anonymous online is impossible and their activities can be traced. The MPS said a number of docs have landed in hot water for posting confidential or inappropriate information on networking websites. For example there were 72 cases against medical staff relating to social web use between 2008 and 2011.

On the other hand, doctors sometimes end up on the other end of online comments: a top GP complained in February that the general public were too rude about doctors online. ®

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