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    Sep 15, 2016

    New social media rules in medical ethics code

    IF YOUR patient tries to friend you on Facebook, you can accept his request but do not share anything that might compromise his confidentiality or privacy, or jeopardise your own professionalism.

    These new guidelines on social media use for medical professionals are part of the updated Ethical Code and Ethical Guidelines (ECEG) released by the Singapore Medical Council (SMC) yesterday.

    Last revised in 2002, the changes were made to keep up with a "more complex" medical practice, due to factors such as advanced technology, innovative communication, new modes of treatment and changing expectations of patients, according to the SMC.

    "Social media is now part of everyday life and doctors use it as well," said Dr Tan Chi Chiu, chairman of the working committee for the ECEG review.

    "The guidelines need to reflect that - among other developments - but the principles of protecting patient confidentiality and doctors maintaining professional conduct remains the same," he added.

    Under the new guidelines, medical practitioners should not initiate social media relationships with patients.

    But if patients initiate such contact with them, they can respond, but with the earlier mentioned caveats in mind.

    Social media platforms include Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, online forums, web chat sites and blogs, and refer to websites and apps that enable users to create and share content and participate in social networking, said Dr Tan.

    The reasoning is that others may have access to confidential medical matters discussed on social media platforms, according to the guidelines.

    Patients may also be put in a position where they feel pressured or obliged to engage with practitioners.

    In fact, even if no medical information is shared online, medical confidentiality may be breached if the information is shared in a way that allows others to find out about the doctor-patient relationship.

    Doctors interviewed say they rarely use social media for professional use but said they are careful with the information shared with patients in the event that they use it.

    "I have responded to repeat patients' WhatsApp messages about their (medical) condition, but it's only a last resort if the patient is too far away," said Dr Sam Wong, a general practitioner (GP) with Parkway Shenton Group.

    Dr Lee Kwok Keong, a GP at Avenue K Clinic at Punggol, does not give out his mobile number to patients, preferring to use e-mail to communicate.

    His clinic has a Facebook page but does not use the messaging function to communicate with patients.

    The guidelines have also been updated for telemedicine and aesthetic practice. Telemedicine involves using telecommunication and information technology to provide healthcare services or information.

    The guidelines stipulate the standards required for telemedicine, which include medical professionals having sufficient training to treat the patient.

    The document also specifies that aesthetic medicine practitioners should not exploit patients' vulnerabilities or insecurities about self-esteem or perception of body image through advertisements.

    In addition, they should not mislead the public into thinking they are aesthetic specialists as aesthetic medicine is not a recognised speciality.

    The ECEG will come into effect on Jan 1 next year.

    Until then, the 2002 version will remain in force.