Nursing, Privacy and the Risks of Social Media


Published: 04 May 2020

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 industry over the past fifteen years.

With 16 million monthly active Facebook users in Australia, the chances are, you’re one of them (David 2020).

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 that enable you to do that.

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

Whilst you may not think your social media use could have an impact on your career, 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 who 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 these 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 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.

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 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.

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 relationship between you and your 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 seem 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 from 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 may 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 termination of 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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