Nursing, Privacy and the Risks of Social Media

Last Updated: 15 September 2023

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Zoe Hughes

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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 15 years.

With 18.5 million monthly active Facebook users in Australia, the chances are you’re one of them (Correll 2023).

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.

While 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 can other people access it? Interestingly enough, according to a research study by the Ponemon Institute into privacy and security online, whilst 75% of users are worried about security, only 44% are 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?

Essential Issues to Consider:

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

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

There are also social media guidelines published by the Australian Nursing & Midwifery Federation that you can acquaint yourself with.

Woman using social media on a laptop

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

Patient Confidentiality

As a healthcare professional, you have an ethical and legal responsibility to safeguard the confidentiality of your patients at all times. While 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 possible that the individual could be recognized or find the information themselves.

It’s important that the patient or situation cannot be identified using the sum of 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 to finding your colleagues discussing something personal that 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 it 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 to contact you on a more personal level. Not only that, but they could discover some very private details about you and your family. While 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.

While 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 behavior. While frowned upon and possibly even illegal, many potential employers will look at social media accounts while 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?’

Additional Resources

  • Use of Social Media and Online Networking | ANMF


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