Nursing, Privacy and the Risks of Social Media


Published: 14 March 2017

Cover image for article: Nursing, Privacy and the Risks of Social Media

Social media, the umbrella term for connecting with others online through websites and apps like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, has grown into a massive multi-billion dollar making industry over the past fifteen years.

With 65.8% of Australians using Facebook according to social media agency Vivid Social (2017), chances are you’re one of them.

As a healthcare professional, using social media can be beneficial from an educational and peer support point of view. Being able to discuss the latest research findings and evidence based practice is an important aspect of continuing your professional development, and social media is just one of the tools available that enables you to do that.

Though in all probability, your social media use is probably weighted more on the personal side than professional.

Whilst you may not think your social media use could have an impact on your career as a nurse or midwife, there are a number of possible implications if you haven’t taken adequate steps to protect yourself.

Privacy is a growing concern for all of us that use the internet. Just how is our information being used, and could other people be able to access it? Interestingly enough, according to a research study by the Ponemon Institute into privacy and security online, whilst 75% of users were worried about security, only 44% were concerned about privacy (Ponemon Institute 2015).

So how can using Facebook be a risky business, and what do you really need to know about social media privacy and your nursing career?

Essentially, the issues we need to consider are:

  • Breaches in confidentiality
  • Bullying and harassment
  • Defamation; and
  • Breaking professional boundaries.

Obviously they are serious concerns that can have far reaching implications not only for yourself, but your colleagues and patients too. It’s for this reason that many university nursing programmes are now including lectures on safe social media use, online security and privacy.

There are also Social Media Guidelines published by the Australian College of Nursing, and the Australian College of Midwives that you should acquaint yourselves with.

nursing social media

Let’s break down the issues of poor social media privacy into some more detail.

Patient Confidentiality

As a health professional, you have an ethical and legal responsibility to safeguard the confidentiality of your patients at all times. Whilst using social media for research and support, it’s not unusual to see case studies posted and discussed, but if this is done incorrectly it could directly breach the patient’s confidentiality and enable their sensitive information to be accessible online.

Most of what is posted on social media sites ends up indexed and archived on search engines. Imagine if a friend or loved one of a patient was trying to find out more about their condition or treatment, and found a photo of them with their medical history online. Although you might have been careful to blur the face and use a pseudonym for your patient, it’s still probable that the individual could be recognised, or find the information themselves.

It’s important that the patient or situation cannot be identified using the sum information available online; and before putting any patient information on the internet in any context, express consent should be obtained and acknowledged in the post.

Bullying and Harassment

Unfortunately we all know it occurs in the workplace, and social media makes it all too easy for it to hit you at home too. From unwanted comments, messages and actual abuse, through to finding your colleagues discussing something personal they’ve discovered about you online – the scope for bullying is considerable.

The flip side to that is defamation. It can be incredibly easy to go home after a long day at work and vent about one of your colleagues on social media. You might not even be aware of what you’re doing.

Not only is this a form of bullying that can cause tense working relationships, it can also lead to you being prosecuted under the Defamation Act 2005, where Australia adopted unified defamation legislation. If you are having issues at work, it’s always best to keep it offline and discuss with your boss or a colleague for support.

Professional Boundaries with Patients

It can be difficult enough to separate work from your personal life at the best of times. Professional boundaries are important when we consider that the only relationship between a nurse and their patient should be solely therapeutic. Unfortunately, social media makes it incredibly easy for patients to find you online, and attempt contact on a more personal level. Not only that, but they could discover some very private details about you and your family. Whilst this might be harmless in most cases, it could lead to problems such as abuse, harassment and even stalking.

Future Career Prospects

Is there anything on your social media accounts that you wouldn’t want your boss or patients to see? Unless you lead a very dull life, there’s a high probability of an embarrassing photo or two of you on social media somewhere, and they might be out of your control on a friend’s account. Whilst no one is saying that you can’t have a good time away from work, you are responsible for preventing your profession being brought into disrepute by your behaviour. Whilst frowned upon and possibly even illegal, many potential employers will look at social media accounts whilst screening candidates.

Most workplaces have a social media policy (which might be part of an internet use policy) that you should be well acquainted with. Any breach of this policy could lead to discipline at work and, depending on the severity, could cause a termination in your employment. It’s worth reading through this every so often and making sure you’re aware of any updates.

Using social media carefully and with common sense is usually enough to protect yourself from any of the potential issues discussed. Make sure your privacy settings are at their highest and consider what you’re posting and if it could be misconstrued before hitting submit. Just ask yourself, “would I say or do this in public wearing my uniform?”

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Portrait of Zoe Hughes
Zoe Hughes

Zoe is a copywriter and blogger from the UK. Once working as an Operating Department Practitioner in a busy Orthopaedic theatre suite specialising in regional anaesthetic techniques, she now writes for the health industry due to disability. Using the education and skills learned as a nurse, along with the experience of being disabled – Zoe is passionate about helping health professionals communicate better with their patients via social media, blogs and websites. In her spare time, Zoe is a governor at her local primary school, and is writing a play about invisible illness. See Educator Profile

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Jacqueline Dechaineux
19 Mar 2020

Gave me some food for thought