In today’s media-driven society, the boundaries between private and professional life are becoming increasingly blurred. In such a fast-moving environment, it’s all too easy to forget that the same standards of professionalism and confidentiality apply no matter what the medium of communication.
Social media may be defined as any online interaction that involves a conversation, participation, sharing content or networking. Examples of social media include, but are not limited to, blogs, forums and social networking sites and apps such as Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube and WhatsApp.
Social media guidance for dentists and student dentists
In 2019, the HPCSA published Guidance on using social media, which provides guidelines on the safe and professional use of social media.
The guidance states that when using social media, you must:
• Maintain high professional and etical standards when using social media irrespective of whether online content is accessible to the public or is limited to a closed group of professionals.
• Be aware there are potential risks involved in the sharing of information via social media even if the consequences are unintended.
• Comply with any internet and social media policy set out by your university dental school.
Posting inappropriate comments/photographs or describing a patient’s care on a social media site can damage your reputation and lead to disciplinary action as well as unwanted media attention.
It is advisable not to accept friend requests from current or former patients; similarly entering into discussions with patients in an online public forum is best avoided.
It is also important to remember that, when interacting with fellow professionals on dental blogs and social networking sites, or when taking part in forum discussions, anonymity is a myth. “You should write everything as if you are signing it with your name.” When posting online, bear in mind who could be reading what you write. Unguarded comments about patients, your lecturers or fellow students could lead to disciplinary action by your dental school or the HPCSA.
Mark, a fourth year dental student, saw a young female patient in the restorative department. Mark took a history from the patient and realised that she was a first year geography student at the same university.
Mark saw her for a few more appointments to complete her treatment. They seemed to get on well, so Mark contacted her via social media.
After a while, the relationship soured, and the patient complained to the dental school about Mark’s conduct in contacting her and starting a relationship as a result of meeting her as a patient. Fitness to practice procedures were instigated.
• As a student, professional boundaries may seem blurred. Students may feel that, since they are not fully qualified dentists, the limits around personal relationships do not apply.
• However, the HPCSA GDC is clear that dentists and dental students are expected to maintain appropriate boundaries in the relationships they have with patients.
• Think about how you might handle situations like the one above. If you have any concerns, discuss these with your tutors or clinical supervisor.
For more information or guidance around the use of social media or issues you might be facing, call our support and advice line on +27 11 484 5288.
Discover more in the 'Surviving dental school' series here.