‘Like’ ethics

16 January, 2013 / Infocus

Social networking has come a long way. Just five years ago, Facebook was a website mainly used by students and young graduates, while few people had even heard of Twitter. But, as time went on, both sites widened their reach, and more such sites have appeared, attracting more users who use them for personal and business purposes.

Dental professionals should be aware of the pitfalls of using social media and make sure you are using it in the right way.

Friendships and following

The ease with which you can make contact with people online can lead some patients to approach a dental professional even though they wouldn’t dream of contacting them outside the dental practice in the ‘real’ world.

While it may be flattering to receive a friendship request or be followed by a patient, it is important not to accept these advances as you may be blurring the dental professional-patient boundary and could soon regret it.

The Dental Defence Union is aware of cases where patients have made romantic advances to dental professionals via social networking sites and it can be far more difficult to rebuff these advances if they have already inadvertently encouraged the behaviour by communicating online. If a patient does try to make contact, it is best to explain that you cannot accept their request due to your ethical duty to maintain a purely professional relationship.

Privacy settings

If a patient has managed to find you online then you may want to consider what privacy settings you have in place on your social networking accounts. Some dental professionals choose to make their accounts totally private while others post on sites such as Twitter under a pseudonym and keep their real identity secret.

Whichever privacy settings you choose, it is important to consider how you would feel if a patient saw the content that is publicly available. You may be happy for extended family and friends to see photos of your latest holiday or a night out, but do you want any of your patients to be able to access this information?

Be careful what you post

Nowadays, many people take to social networking sites to have a seemingly harmless and private rant about something that has annoyed them in their day. However, it can be dangerous to assume that this is totally private. Think carefully before discussing colleagues, posting amusing tales about a patient or sharing a private joke online. Even if you think you have removed the identifying information about the patient, you may find that you have actually broken their confidentiality.

There have been cases of dental professionals not realising that their patient is a friend of a friend who happened to know that the patient had attended the dental practice that day and so they could identify who the story was about. Similarly, before posting your thoughts about colleagues or information about your personal life, consider whether this really ties in with the professional image you want to project to others.

Advertising your practice

Many dental practices now use social networking sites to advertise the services their practice offers. It can be a great way of drumming up business and communicating new services or changes to the local community. Earlier this year, the GDC released guidance titled ‘Principles of Ethical Advertising’ and it is important that any marketing material for your practice, including social networking pages and profiles, complies with this.

The GDC is clear that dental professionals may face a fitness to practise investigation if they fall short of its standards. It states: “Patients may be confused and uncertain about dental treatment so you should take special care when explaining your services to them. This includes providing balanced, factual information enabling them to make an informed choice about their treatment… Misleading claims can make it very difficult for patients to choose a dental professional or dental services and this can lead to expectations which cannot be fulfilled and, in more serious cases, can put patients at risk of harm from an inappropriate choice.”

Responding to criticism

It is becoming increasingly common for people to go online to complain about a service or product they are unhappy with and dental practices do not escape this new, very public method of providing criticism. No one likes to be criticised and it can be easy to respond without thinking through the consequences.

The way in which you deal with the criticism can make a big difference to whether the patient chooses to make a formal complaint.

It is important to fully consider the best course of action and whether you really want to respond. If you feel a response is appropriate, remember that anything you post will be online for all to see. Also remember that although you are bound by a duty of confidentiality, the patient is free to republish what you say elsewhere online.

If you do receive negative comments online, you may wish to acknowledge the patient’s dissatisfaction directly, apologise if appropriate and ask them to contact the practice so that you can address their concerns, while preserving confidentiality.

It is important to always avoid getting into an online spat with a patient. You may end up giving a wrong impression of your practice’s professionalism and could inadvertently break confidentiality.

About the author

Angela Harkins has worked predominantly in NHS dental practices for 19 years as both an associate and principal.
She continues to work part-time in practice, and has a keen interest in the management of the anxious patient.
Angela is also a Scottish dento-legal adviser at the Medical Defence Union having previously completed an MPhil in law and ethics.

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