Healthcare Marketing: When The Use Of Social Media Becomes Improper

Doctors and staff of the British Health Service accused of violating the doctor-patient trust

Efficient and innovative communication in Healthcare Marketing is a valuable resource and operators are becoming increasingly dependent on using social media and messaging apps to communicate and share information with patients. However, messages composed and sent within seconds can have serious and lasting professional, legal and regulatory implications.


Over the past 5 years, over 1,200 employees of the English Health Service, the NHS, have received disciplinary action due to the improper use of social media (or messaging app). The requests were seen by support staff for general practitioners. Most of the cases concerned the disclosure of confidential information on patients, complaints about colleagues or inappropriate contact with patients, with consequences ranging from suspensions to dismissals. 

We usually come into contact with medical personnel in the most vulnerable period of our lives and often an implicit relationship of trust is established with healthcare professionals and medical staff.

Disclosure of confidential information about patients by any means constitutes a clear breach of trust within the doctor-patient relationship.

While social media evolves and integrates further into everyday life, all users of social media and messaging apps should be aware of the professional and personal consequences of this method of communication. Anyone managing personal information should be aware of the risks of sending information on public and accessible platforms where the (non-professional) information disclosed could be easily intercepted and the evidence can rarely be permanently deleted.

The dangers of improper use of social platforms

The dangers of using (or misusing) social media for healthcare professionals can be serious. For example:

  1. Professional and personal boundaries can become distorted;
  2. Users who operate under a pseudonym have not guaranteed anonymity and comments can often be traced to identify the user;
  3. The information sent is far-reaching and instantaneous;
  4. Permanence: even after a comment or message has been deleted if saved, circulated by another user, or if a Screenshot has been taken, the comment proof still exists. The implications of this latter point were demonstrated by the fact that the NHS investigations took place several years after the original comment was sent.

The NHS (but also other health facilities that work with patients’ personal information) should ensure that staff receives adequate training to raise awareness of social media pitfalls.

All staff within the organization could learn personal information about patients/colleagues and should receive training on the importance of supporting the duty of confidentiality, with a specific focus on social media. The entry into force in May 2018 of the EU Regulation 2016/679, known as  GDPR ( General Data Protection Regulation), has regulated the treatment and free circulation of  personal information that must never be released without the explicit consent of the patient and the consequences that this violation entails from a personal and professional point of view.

Some quick tips to manage social media to the fullest

Every Health Marketing professional must keep in mind some simple points when he is working in close contact with people and handling sensitive data every day:

  1. Think before you press enter:  Messages and tweets often take a few seconds to edit and send. Taking a break to read the content before sending can highlight some inappropriate information.
  1. Considering your own professional obligations:  Healthcare structures and employees who work there should in no case disclose patient information on social networking platforms, and opinions on colleagues would be better shared within the work environment directly to those directly involved.
  1. Think of the context:  During writing, consider how the comment can be taken out of context and interpreted differently by the followers.
  1. And finally, if you have nothing nice to say … say nothing.