Issue 14 / 5 October 2010

“DOCTORS caught revealing secret patient information in Facebook posts,” trumpeted the headline in Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph recently.

And it got worse. “Doctors have been disclosing sensitive medical information — and even mocking patients — on Facebook,” the article said.

Dozens of people logged on to comment on the story, and while some were sympathetic to the medical profession, the overall tone was definitely hostile.

There were calls for offending doctors to be deregistered, along with talk of “arrogance” and “god complexes”.

“Most people would already know that you can’t trust doctors to respect your confidentiality, so this comes as no surprise,” said one post.

Another described the behaviour as “grossly inappropriate, indiscreet, silly”, saying “when they get punished they will stop”.

So what was the basis for this anti-doctor hate-fest? A Facebook group called “Patients Suck” perhaps, where doctors competed to out-sneer each other?

Well, hardly.

A quick Google search and a phone call to the Medical Council of New South Wales established the source was a brief item in a newsletter back in April that said a patient had complained about comments made by a doctor on the social networking site. (The newsletter was from the former Medical Board of NSW, which became the Medical Council as part of the move to national registration.)

The doctor concerned had been counselled about the “flippant and at times derogatory comments about patients”, the newsletter said.

Last week, a Medical Council spokesman told me he was not aware of any similar complaints by other patients.

So a 6-month-old item about one reckless medical practitioner was transformed into a major scandal about “doctors” (plural) abusing confidentiality and ridiculing patients. Must have been a slow news day at the Tele.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a serious point to be made about the use of social networking sites.

Facebook, Twitter and the rest have a lot to offer health professionals. There’s the potential to promote public health messages, share medical information, and even recruit participants for clinical trials.

But there are risks too, as this case illustrates.

Facebook is not the tea room. You may think you are just talking to a select group of friends or colleagues, but the truth is privacy can never be entirely assured on any social networking site.

They are not the place for a funny story about an annoying patient or a detailed description of a case that might be recognised by the patient.

Bottom line: if you wouldn’t want it published under your name in a newspaper, don’t post it on Facebook.

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer. She has worked for Melbourne’s The Age and contributed to publications including the BMJ, The Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald. She is also a former news and features editor with Australian Doctor. Her book, Making Girls and Boys, on the science of sex and gender, will be published by UNSW Press early next year.

Posted 5 October 2010

2 thoughts on “Jane McCredie: Old news is bad news for Facebook doctors

  1. Sue says:

    The use of Facebook is one thing, but what this example manifests is the relatively new phenomenon of direct reader feedback on news stories. Take a look at any on-line newspaper – you will see that many stories have the capacity for the reader to comment. As you would expect, the tone and nature of the comments are generally consistent with the nature of the newspaper. This story was in a tabloid. If you want to do some interesting social network, go to any on-line tabloid and read the reader comments on any story. You may find a few reasonable and well-considered remarks, but mostly the type of diabtribe described here.
    The other issue, of course, is that mass communication sends messages world-wide about whatever takes the author’s fancy. Individual incidents that would previously have been dealt with locally can now reach a world audience.
    yes, it’s important to use caution in one’s daily life, and especially in professional life. But, the world has changed.

  2. Peter Arnold says:

    Jane says: “If you wouldn’t want it published under your name in a newspaper, don’t post it on Facebook.”
    I go further: “Don’t put anything into an e-mail that you would be embarrassed to see on the front page of a newspaper.”
    I have removed the SEND button of my mail software. I SAVE e-mails, and check them some time later – before taking the mouse to Messages->Send.

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