CPC Qualicare / DocWeb | Doctor's Online resource for South African Doctors

January 2018 Newsletter

Can Doctors and Patients be “friends” on Facebook?

With the ever increasing use of social media, Doctors and patients are interacting more and more frequently on various social media platforms.

How does the doctor draw the line between professionalism and friendship? How does the medical professional avoid being drawn into a vortex which could land him in the lap of the Health Professions Council of South Africa?

Doctors, whilst embracing close involvement with their patients as well as exposing the transition to patient centricity, we have to beware of the Ethical rules of the Health Professions Council of South Africa and more specifically to the rules on telemedicine and patient confidentiality. It is a fine line between merely “friending” a patient and making copious patient information available for that patient to comment upon in open forum, with others!!

A cautious practitioner will weigh up his position with great circumspection when utilizing Social Media.  The same does not apply to the consumers of health, as, within reason, the patients they may say what they like, and they often do!!

We are therefore against making any private and personal patient’s health details or medical facts available at all, on social platforms. These will include patient lists, addresses, likes and followings.

These precautions also relate to patient details, their clinical, emotional and test requests, as well as place of residence, programs attended, likes and desires, prognosis etc....

There is nothing to stop a qualified medical profession professional making his address and hours as well as areas of special interest known in terms of the advertising policy of the HPCSA. (A lack of understanding of these policies and a resultant transgression can once again cause unending trouble for our members.)

The power of opting out of social media is the easy answer but the younger doctors of today may find that they lose their patient appeal if they do! 

Nothing stops a non-medical discussion occurring between doctors and patients in connection with for example the weather, the drought , movies etc ; however once the patient poses anything question which may have a health related outcome, the medical practitioner is strongly warned not to answer the question as the response could be shared across all social platforms.

Employers, fellow employees, government and legal officials etc may be on the same platform, and despite the ability on some platforms to remove a posting, this may take time and in the interim , will forever have caused damage. 

You may, quite inadvertently, open yourself to a negligence or damages claim!

In order for a claim for damages to succeed 4 elements required:

  • There needs to be an established duty of care
  • That duty of care needs to be shown to have been breached
  • As a result damages must be demonstrated to have flowed
  • There must be loss of functional capacity

A final warning therefore is never to become involved in any of these 4 elements on social media specifically do not allow yourself to be drawn into establishing a duty of care.

On social media, when interacting with a patient, the duty of care is very subjective and the court of public opinion will almost certainly not take your side when you try to prove otherwise. Similarly, the breach of a duty of care can be influenced by the reader and his/ her colleagues and their social vitriol.

Certainly a court should have the final level headed approach and should not be biased by the media BUT do you want to be drawn into a potential public spat which , itself , will be flighted on social media? Trial by Media is a far more daunting prospect than trial by jury, and one which can ruin your reputation and that of your family as well. Think of the recent Banting matter!!

At a recent talk at the Refresher Course for Family Practioners at the SISSA, it was pointed out that the very popular ‘WhatsApp’ has apparently been acquired by a huge Internet Company and their Tˢ and Cˢ have recently been amended to permit data storage, data access, and mining. Combined with facial recognition etc, you may find a patient being in advertantley identified and potentially severally embarrassed by breach of confidentiality …..

So if you stick to trivial generalized information you should be safe, however the environment is like walking in lion grass in the middle of tiger country!!

“ Caveat Emptor….. let the buyer beware. “

Tony Behrman

Last modified on Monday, 16 January 2018 06:29

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