Doctors advised not to connect with patients on social media

Doctors advised not to connect with patients on social media

SINGAPORE — Doctors cannot start social media relationships with their patients, but if they accept such relationships initiated by patients, their behaviour “should be of the highest standard”, said the Singapore Medical Council in its handbook on medical ethics to doctors released on Wednesday (Sept 14).

“Engaging in social relationships with your patients through the use of social media platforms can blur the professional boundary between you and your patients,” the handbook states. “Although superficial and casual interaction on social networking sites may appear innocuous, you should be aware that the power imbalance between you and your patients may influence your patients’ decision to enter into online relationships with you.”

While doctors may enter into such relationships initiated by patients, “perhaps in order not to give offence, or simply out of politeness”, they must take care not to inappropriately share personal information that “might breach patient confidentiality or privacy”.

Noting that others may have access to confidential medical matters shared online, the council added: “Social media is not an appropriate medium for medical consultations or for patients to discuss with you any medical matter.”

The Handbook on Medical Ethics, running over 150 pages, is more than double the length of the updated Ethical Code And Ethical Guidelines (ECEG), which is referred to for disciplinary matters involving doctors. The handbook is meant as an educational resource on the ECEG, and the latter will still be the primary document on which doctors’ behaviour will be judged.

In the handbook, the SMC also recommended that doctors with a strong Internet presence be careful “that any exposure of your personal life and actions does not diminish your professional standing or the trust and confidence that patients have in you, or bring the profession as a whole into disrepute”.

This included appearing intoxicated by alcohol or drugs, engaging in lewd or inappropriate behaviour, and posting personal or derogatory comments about patients or colleagues.

Other matters elaborated on in the handbook include the non-discrimination of patients.

“You are obliged to avoid making moral judgments about your patients’ habits or lifestyles in deciding whether to provide treatment and how you would treat,” the SMC recommended. “There will be patients whom you believe have lifestyles or habits that may have contributed to their illnesses or whose illnesses you deem to be ‘self-inflicted’ …

“Your responsibility is to manage these patients according to clinical needs and outcomes. You have no role in ‘punishing’ patients for their lifestyles or habits.”