In March 2013 The General Medical Council published an updated version of ‘Good Medical Practice’, its code of conduct for doctors. The updated guidance is due to come into effect on 22nd April 2013. Concerns have been raised about supplementary guidance published by the GMC titled ‘Doctors’ use of Social Media’ which will also take effect on 22nd April.
The GMC social media guidance expands on a number of the core duties contained in Good Medical Practice, such as treating colleagues with respect; maintaining the public’s trust in the profession; and maintaining confidentiality when speaking publicly. This guidance acknowledges that the rapid growth of social media has blurred the lines between public and private life and stresses that the standards expected of Doctors do not change simply because they are communicating through social media.
Section 17 of the guidance deals with the question of identity and has the effect of precluding doctors from maintaining anonymity or using aliases. This section reads as follows:
“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 professional more widely.”
Concerns have been raised about the implications towards doctors’ free speech and that the guidance may restrict the publication of candid accounts of life on the front-line within the NHS. Other commentators have observed that such restrictions appear to run contrary to the recommendations in the Francis Report into the Mid-Staffordshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which called for greater protection for whistle-blowers and an end to the use of non-disparagement clauses. A petition has also been created on the Government’s e-petition website calling for the guidance to be withdrawn.
It may be some time before a clear picture emerges of how the GMC intend to enforce this policy. It remains to be seen whether alleged breaches of the social media guidance result in referrals to the GMC and ultimately lead to fitness to practise hearings. However it is anticipated that in the absence of any other concerns regarding a doctor’s clinical performance or professional conduct, the alleged breaches of the social media guidance would have to be substantial in order to justify a referral to a fitness to practise hearing and, ultimately, a finding of impairment of fitness to practise.
By professional discipline solicitor, Carl Johnson
If you have been referred to the General Medical Council, or are concerned regarding the introduction of the updated Good Medial Practice, please contact our specialist GMC lawyers on 0845 002 0736 without delay.