Brace for impact? Opportunities and risks of social media for the dental profession

Social media offers a wealth of potential opportunities for any business willing to invest in it.  However, as with all regulated professions it also poses some very real risks. Many cases involving professionals who find themselves on the wrong side of the “wisdom of the crowd” tend to underappreciate the effect that a poorly-chosen opinion expressed virtually can have upon the real-world practice of a professional. As well as the risk of defamation or other civil proceedings, there is potential censure by the Advertising Standards Authority as a result of marketing messages disseminated online that fall foul of the Code of Advertising (CAP).

Thankfully, the General Dental Council has issued guidance on the use of social media within Dental Practices. The guidance also relates to personal behaviour by practitioners on the social web, and on advertising more generally, as well as through social networking platforms. That guidance is practical, based largely upon existing law and prevailing professional standards and reflects good common sense. It’s easy, however, to fail to appreciate how what may seem like an ephemeral and transitory comment, may serve as a time capsule which may come back to haunt Dental Professionals.

If the coming into force of General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) hadn’t firmly entrenched the importance of confidentiality and data protection in your mind, Section 4.2.3 of the Standards for the Dental Team is referred to within the GDC’s Guidance, confirming that patient details should never be posted online, with even anonymised case studies being carefully risk-assessed before publishing. The most fundamental point, remains true of pretty much any social media user – the standards expected of dental professionals don’t change when communicating on social media. Certainly, it’s advisable for practices to maintain their own social media policies to make clear what is and isn’t acceptable, as well as containing examples of good practice.

Preparation and planning in “peacetime”, as well as setting appropriate standards for individual practices over and above those set by the GDC is the best way to prepare for a social media crisis, however minor. The GDC recognises this, and the profession needs to do the same to fully embrace the opportunities of real-time engagement in the continuously-connected world.

This article was first published in Modern Dentist magazine.

Disclaimer: This document does not present a complete or comprehensive statement of the law, nor does it constitute legal advice. It is intended only to highlight issues that may be of interest to clients of BLM. Specialist legal advice should always be sought in any particular case.

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