Medical Council News


A Social Media Case Study

This case study does not form part of the Guide to Ethics and Professionalism for Registered Medical Practitioners, nor does it constitute legal advice. It is intended as a helpful illustration of a potential scenario.


A doctor, who is a surgeon of many years’ experience, regularly uses Twitter and posts a blog about his life – both his private life and his work. They provide an outlet for his stress and are intended to amuse readers. On returning from holiday he had a particularly difficult day and, on finishing work, he tweeted, ‘first day back in theatre & killing it’. A follower re-tweeted and this was picked up by a lady whose husband had recently been operated on by the doctor and who had subsequently died. It was not difficult for this lady to identify that the Tweet had been posted by her husband’s surgeon.

Advice from the Ethical Guide Social media provides new ways for doctors to communicate with patients, colleagues and the public. If you use social media, you should still maintain the professional standards expected in other forms of communication. You should always think about the possible impact on colleagues, patients or the public’s perception of the profession, before publishing comments on social media sites. You should treat patients and colleagues with respect and avoid abusive, unsustainable or malicious comments.

How or whether you use social media in your private life is a matter for you to decide.  However, privacy cannot be guaranteed. Before posting, you should consider how information or images you post might be viewed by patients or the public, if they were to become more widely available.

Advice on the use of social media can be found at paragraph 20 of the Ethical Guide. Bearing this in mind, let’s consider how ethically the doctor behaved. Did the patient’s wife have grounds for complaint? The tweet was clearly not intended to be taken seriously and did not relate to the care of her late husband. The definitions of ‘Professional misconduct’ and ‘poor professional performance’; and grounds for making a complaint can be found at paragraph 2 of the Ethical Guide. It is important to keep in mind that people generally complain because they feel their needs have not been met.  A complaint can be an opportunity to increase understanding of the patient’s perspective. The Medical Council’s guide to responding to a complaint may be of assistance to doctors in this situation.  Perhaps if the patient’s wife felt that this behaviour was unacceptable, she might consider making a complaint directly to the doctor, using our helpful guide to resolving concerns. If this didn’t resolve the situation, the patient’s wife could make a complaint to the Medical Council.


Further considerations for the doctor to take into account:

  • How would the doctor’s employing hospital react?
  • Would such posts be likely to contravene the doctor’s contractual or other obligations as an employee?
  • Always be mindful of your legal obligations under Freedom of Information and Data Protection legislation.