Social media offers many potential benefits to nurses and midwives, from connecting and sharing information with healthcare professionals around the world, to supporting patients throughout their diagnosis and treatment. Yet the internet is not without its pitfalls, and nurses must take care to act responsibly, just as they would in the real world.
Here’s our guide to getting the most out of social media and the pitfalls to avoid.
Benefits of social media
Nurses and midwives are no different to anyone else when it comes to enjoying the benefits of social media, using it to keep in touch with family and friends, find job vacancies, and discuss the latest healthcare issues.
‘Social media can be a fantastic tool, particularly for sharing best practice and clinical advice connecting with other professionals,’ says Rachel Purkett, Digital Engagement and Campaigns Manager at the RCN.
The RCN, Nursing Standard, @WeNurses, @NurChat and others run regular Twitter chats where nurses can share ideas and discuss issues relating to the profession.
‘Twitter users are generous about sharing information. Links to blogs, online articles, and media pieces are all freely given. Follow the right people and it’s easy to keep up to date,’ adds Rachel.
LinkedIn is great for connecting with healthcare professionals and special interest groups and societies. More than just a dynamic online CV, the professional networking site enables nurses to share information, join debates, see who’s hiring, and access a global network of support.
New NMC guidelines
The Nursing and Midwifery Council’s (NMC) new professional code recognises that more nurses and midwives are using social media as a professional tool and have issued guidelines on the subject.
Nurses and midwives must uphold the reputation of their profession at all times by using “all forms of spoken, written and digital communication (including social networking sites) responsibly, respecting the right to privacy of others at all times” (NMC, 2015).
Keeping a boundary
Keeping a boundary between your personal and professional life can prove problematic. Even with privacy settings, it can be surprisingly easy for others to gain access to your posts.
‘While many people use social network sites to keep up to date with their friends, it is vital that nurses do not compromise their professional status in doing so,’ warns Chris Cox, RCN’s Director of Legal Services. ‘Your conduct online should always adhere to professional standards, even if they are using a social media site for personal use. If you identify yourself as a nurse on social media, you need to take extra care.’
You may regret sharing information about your private life or posting pictures that could have a detrimental effect on your professionalism. Posts and photos uploaded before you became a nurse may be visible and others can potentially “tag” photos with your name, even if you take the images down.
Connecting with patients
Even without engaging with patients or service users on social media, they may still be able to access your information, potentially blurring important professional boundaries.
Remember that social networks can potentially contain a great deal of personal information, from photos and messages, to your location, relationship status and links to personal biographies that include things like telephone numbers and email addresses.
With so much shared information, it’s easy to share personal and patient information without being aware. Unless you “Direct Message” someone, each post can have potentially hundreds of readers.
Even with privacy settings, you may receive Facebook requests from patients or their relatives. If you wish to enter into a conversation, ask patients to contact you via email, which is more secure than the private messages offered by social networks. Don’t post anything that could lead to the identification of a patient and never disclose patient information.
The NMC guidelines state: ‘It is unacceptable for nurses and midwives to discuss matters related to the people in their care outside clinical settings. If you refer to your work or study on social media you need to ensure that you demonstrate respect and professionalism towards all your patients or service users by respecting their right to privacy and confidentiality regardless of whether you believe that there is a risk of identification.’
Your registration could be in jeopardy if you share confidential information inappropriately, post pictures of people receiving care without their consent or post inappropriate comments about patients. Using social media to build or pursue relationships with patients and service users, including former ones, could also put your registration at risk.
Letting off steam
Social media is not the place to let off steam. Flippancy or irreverence – even followed with a “smiley” face – is unwise. If you wouldn’t say it directly to a public audience you don’t know, don’t post it online. Even if you delete a tweet or post, it may have already been viewed by then.
‘Posting damaging remarks about your employer, clients or other employees could breach an employer’s internet policy, harassment policy or harm the employer’s reputation and lead to a breach of employment contract,’ warns Chris.
Social networking sites should not be used for raising and escalating concerns, or bullying or intimidating someone. If you make a defamatory allegation about someone online you can be sued for libel if it can be proved it caused “substantial harm” to the person concerned – the same way that a newspaper can be sued it if publishes a false and damaging report. Potentially, you don’t need to originate a defamatory tweet to be in trouble – by re-tweeting a post it can be argued that you are endorsing its message.
Sharing without permission
Avoid sharing research materials at conferences or society meetings via social media without the author’s permission. Always ask the speaker if they are happy for you to tweet or post elements of their talk online.
Know your facts
As a nurse or midwife, you have a responsibility to ensure that any information or advice that you provide via social media is evidence-based and correct to the best of your knowledge.
Don’t discuss anything that does not fall within your level of competence and you should avoid making general comments that could be considered inaccurate.
Find out more
‘Nurses should not be scared of using social media. As long as you’re aware of the pitfalls and use it responsibly, it can be a fantastic professional tool,’ says Rachel.
To find out more about how the NHS is using social media to benefit patients and staff, @nhssm holds a weekly chat (Wednesdays 8-9pm) or join the debate at @thercn.
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