Doctors learn how to treat new media


In the UK, doctors are working on guidelines for the appropriate use of social networks

NEWS THAT the small Scottish island of Jura had taken to social media to recruit a GP made headlines in the UK earlier this month after the ad was posted on a Facebook page entitled Perfect Practice: Idyllic Island GP vacancy.

According to the ad (, the islanders are “looking for a doctor to run the medical practice on the beautiful Island of Jura. The Jura community of 200 want to find a candidate who will love the island, as well as look after their health.”

The amount of attention received by this rather unconventional but innovative approach to GP recruitment is testament to the increasing growth of social media in medicine and healthcare.

The expansion of social media over the past decade has made the world a much smaller place for all of those who inhabit that space and doctors are no exception. Facebook is proving a useful patient education tool and Twitter a popular filter for the realms of medical information doctors are bombarded with every day.

However, the use of social media by doctors also raises concerns around issues such as patient confidentiality, the blurring of personal and professional profiles and the importance of maintaining professionalism online at all times.

Earlier this year the General Medical Council (GMC) in the UK held a consultation period with members in relation to developing a new guidance on the use of social media by doctors. The guidance is part of a wider review of the GMC’s Good Medical Practice (2006), its core guidance document for doctors, which is reviewed every five years.

According to the GMC, “the standards expected of doctors do not change because they are communicating through social media rather than face to face, phone or email”.

Commenting on the draft social media guidance, Mr Niall Dickson, chief executive of the GMC, said: “Online communication has become a key part of every doctor’s personal and professional life, and the use of social media is now very common.

“These newer forms of communication can be incredibly useful but it is important that the standards of behaviour and respect for others which are expected from doctors in the ‘real’ world are also observed online.”

The GMC draft guidelines are available on the council’s website and include guidance on a number of issues including: what to do if a patient contacts a doctor through a private profile, and the importance of not using social media to discuss individual patients or their care.

The GMC will publish the outcome and analysis of the responses received to the consultation later this year.

The Irish Medical Council does not have separate specific guidelines for doctors here on the use of social media.

However, the council stated that a number of paragraphs within its core guide – Guide to Professional Conduct and Ethics for Registered Medical Practitioners (2009) – provides guidance to doctors applicable to social media.

According to the council: “The guide is a principle-based document designed to support doctors in decisions regarding conduct and ethics across a diverse range of practice settings and issues so, for example, its provisions on confidentiality apply to doctors in all situations, including social media.”

Dr Ronan Kavanagh is a consultant rheumatologist at the Galway Clinic with an active social media profile.

Kavanagh has a personal Facebook page reserved for personal use and an official Facebook page: RonanKavanaghMD for his rheumatology practice. The page is intended primarily for patients who attend his practice, however the page clearly states: “interactions here should not be considered as medical advice.”

“What I would post on the Facebook page is what I am trying to do for patients in the same way that Twitter does for me and my colleagues, distil and filter information for patients that they may be interested in.”

He says that one of the difficulties faced by patients seeking health information online is the lack of effective filters and clarity over the provenance of information.

In an effort to address this, for example, Kavanagh’s patient Facebook page carries information on topics such as Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA).

He also posts videos of himself answering frequently asked questions from patients such as “Can I consume alcohol while on medication for RA?” This is one of a number of videos he has prepared on a new patient education website called

He also believes that Facebook has the potential to serve as a community hub for patients.

On Twitter as @RonanTKavanagh he is one of Ireland’s best-known members of the medical twitterati. Others include: Senator and oncologist professor John Crown: @ProfJohnCrown, consultant gastroenterologist Dr Alan Coss: @alcoss, and consultant psychiatrist and music journalist Dr Niall Crumlish: @niallc74.

While Kavanagh initially used Twitter as a means of disseminating his blog, once he mastered the platform, he said he was amazed by how much it had to offer.

This includes learning from and interacting with colleagues worldwide, following international medical conferences via hash tags, and receiving topline data from latest medical research direct to his desktop.

“I found that the inbound information that I was receiving was much more useful than I could have imagined” and Twitter “has opened my eyes to medicine where it interfaces with the rest of the world”, he says.

Kavanagh describes his engagement on social media as “the most important thing” he has done for his medical education since completing specialist training 12 years ago.

“I have learned more on Twitter about my specialty, other specialties and everything around medicine than I have certainly learned in the last five years,” he adds.

Kavanagh says he would welcome guidelines on the use of social media from the Irish Medical Council.

However, when it comes to the appropriate use of Twitter for doctors a lot of it is down to common sense, he explains.

Rules include never answer questions or requests for medical advice from patients and never discuss individual patients or distribute any identifiable patient information online.

“I think one of the social media commentators said don’t discuss anything on Twitter or Facebook that you wouldn’t discuss in a lift in a hospital with other people there,” he says.

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