Debbie Herbst dentolegal adviser at the Dental Defence Union (DDU) discusses the importance of staying professional online.
Many dentists are embracing social media. It’s true that social media can have a positive impact on dentistry. For example by helping dentists to network more effectively and giving patients access to more healthcare information.
But there are risks too. So with that in mind, here are some important issues to consider when using social media:
1. Maintain patient confidentiality
Confidentiality guidance applies to posting online in the same way that it applies to communicating offline.
The GDC states: ‘….you must be careful not to share identifiable information about patients without their explicit consent. When obtaining consent you should specify to the patient how exactly you will use the information you propose to share, for what purpose and where it is available.
‘If you are sharing anonymised patient information, you must also take all possible precautions to make sure that the patient cannot be identified. Although individual pieces of information may not breach a patient’s confidentiality on their own, a number of pieces of patient information published online could be enough to identify them or someone close to them.’
Remember, when posting on social media, it may not just be the patient and their friends and family who see it. But also employers, colleagues, national media and regulatory bodies.
This is the case, even if you are on a ‘closed’ professional forum. So before posting, consider how you would feel if a colleague or patient saw what you had written. Or if it was shared to a wider audience.
2. Remain professional at all times
As mentioned previously, it is important to be aware of the potential for others to see your posts or comments. In particular posts that they may interpret as unprofessional.
Often, it is tempting to ‘let off steam’ about subjects related or unrelated to dentistry. But you can never be sure that others will share your opinions. Followers can take comments out of context and misinterpret them. Or considered to adversely affect patients’ and the public’s confidence in you, or the dental profession.
The GDC’s Guidance on using Social Media, states: ‘Many dental professionals use social media sites that are not accessible to the public to share and find information. However, you must remember that many social media groups, even those set up for dental professionals, may still be accessible to members of the public.’
Inappropriately disclosing information about a patient on social media, or posting anything which may be viewed as unprofessional, including liking or sharing posts written by colleagues, could result in you facing a complaint or even a disciplinary or GDC investigation.
Consequently, an inappropriate photograph or even the groups you join could harm your reputation. So think carefully before you post.
It is also advisable to consider if you are identifiable as a dental professional. Review your posts accordingly.
3. Be careful of friend requests
If you receive a friend request from a patient, the GDC advises you to ‘maintain appropriate boundaries in the relationships you have [both online and off] with patients and other members of the dental team’.
4. Keep your information secure
Often, security settings that change or require updating catch people out. This has meant that highly personal information is accessible for others to view via social media.
Consequently, it is worth regularly reviewing the privacy settings for each of your social media profiles.
Dealing with a negative online patient review
At the DDU, we also advise members on how to deal and respond to a negative review posted on online review sites.
Posting on such sites is becoming an increasingly common way for patients to share negative comments or complaints.
Negative feedback can often feel unjustified and misleading. Occasionally it is abusive, defamatory or offensive. In the first instance, it is always a good idea to seek assistance from your dental defence organisation before taking any action.
However, in general terms, if you receive a negative review, your options include:
- Ignoring the comment
- Responding to the comment
- Flagging the comment to the website and/or asking the website to remove the negative review
- Using the ‘right to be forgotten online’ to remove the page from search results.
Attempting to remove a post may inflame the situation and could prompt the person to re-post their comments on another site.
Equally, taking legal action against a defamatory poster could generate further unwelcome publicity.
Ignoring a negative review may also inflame the situation. Particularly if the poster considers they have aired a legitimate concern. In this case, an appropriate and professional response not only gives the patient the opportunity to raise their concerns directly with you, but is also an opportunity to demonstrate, both to the patient and anybody else who views the comments, that you are happy and able to deal with any concerns.
Responding to criticism
If you decide to respond, it is important to keep any response short, neutral and not to include any personal information.
A suitable response to a critical review of a practice is: ‘As a practice we are disappointed that you were unable to raise this matter directly with us. We would wish to try and address any concerns. We hope that you will contact us so that we can investigate and address your concerns.’
At the DDU, we have developed an interactive e-learning module. It can help dental professionals maximise the benefits of using social media and appreciate its pitfalls. All whilst continuing to meet ethical and legal obligations.
The e-learning module features fictional social media scenarios based on common member queries and concerns. From interactions with patients and colleagues, to your professional image online.