‘We rarely need to take action over a registrant’s use of social networking sites’

If you follow guidelines about what you share and who can access your profile, there is no reason to avoid social media and it can even benefit your CPD, says the HCPC's director of policy and standards

by Michael Guthrie, Director of Policy and Standards, HCPC

A recent conduct hearing involving a social worker who posted comments on Facebook about child protection court proceedings has led to a lot of discussion and concern among social workers about use of social media.

Social media is now a part of many practitioners’ and students’ everyday life. In addition to being important to many people’s social lives, social media can be a useful tool for engaging with your profession, colleagues and service users. The HCPC do not have any concerns about social workers using social media sites, so long as you do so within the standards expected of you as a HCPC registrant. You should make sure that when you use Facebook, your usage is consistent with the standards for of conduct, performance and ethics that we set. The relevant standards are:

  • Standard 1: You must act in the best interests of service users.
  • Standard 2: You must respect the confidentiality of service users.
  • Standard 3: You must keep high standards of personal conduct.
  • Standard 13: You must behave with honesty and integrity and make sure that your behaviour does not damage the public’s confidence in you or your profession.

Tips for good practice
When you post information on Facebook or Twitter, think about whether it is appropriate to share that information. If the information is confidential and is about a service user or colleague, you should not put it on a site. This could include information about their personal life, health or circumstances. If you are unsure if it is appropriate to share that information, it is probably better not to post.

You should also think carefully about who you allow access to your profile, for example, who you accept ‘friend requests’ from on Facebook. In many circumstances accepting a friend request from a service user you are continuing to provide professional services to, or their family, might not be appropriate. If you work independently and use social media to promote your services to the public, you might want to think about how best to draw a distinction between your professional and personal activity on social media.

You should also be careful about your privacy settings on social media. Some sites’ default privacy settings may change automatically, making users’ information more public than they perhaps thought. Because social media is by its very nature meant to be shared, it may be best to err on the side of caution and assume that anything you post on social media could make it into the public domain.

It is also worth considering that even if you delete a post or comment from social media, it does not necessarily remove it from the public domain.

Finally, using social networking sites to share your views and opinions or engage in debate is not something that we would normally be concerned about. However, the HCPC might need to take action if the comments posted were offensive, for example if they were racist or sexually explicit. Again if the information is confidential, you should not put it on a site. If you are unsure if it is appropriate to share that information, it is probably better not to post.

Social media and fitness to practise
Words of caution aside, it is important to note that we rarely need to take action over a registrant’s use of social networking sites.

However, we have on occasion had to take action over the use of social media sites where it has raised concerns about a registrant’s fitness to practise.

  • In the recent case, a social worker posted comments on Facebook about child protection court proceedings. Although the social worker thought her settings were set to private, the post was publicly available and automatically tagged the location of the court.
  • An operating department practitioner tweeted a number of offensive comments about patients and colleagues, and details of an A&E incident. The Panel considered that the use of Twitter to make these comments was repeated and that it undermined public confidence in the profession.
  • A paramedic who posted patient x-rays on Facebook. In this case, the Panel was concerned that the unusual injuries, together with details of the incident’s date and location, made the patient easily identifiable.

Social media and CPD
Many registrants even use social media as an accessible way to keep up with their continuing professional development (CPD), for instance through tweet chats organised around particular professional topics. We are supportive of practitioners using social media in this way, as it reflects our flexible approach to CPD, which allows you as a professional to select the learning activities that are most relevant to your practice and circumstances.

Social media is a useful communication tool. As long as it is used carefully and appropriately, there’s absolutely no reason why it should cause concern for your registration with the HCPC.

HCPC guidance and standards
Standards of conduct performance and ethics
Guidance on conduct and ethics for students
Focus on standards – social networking sites

Community Care has produced this simple guide to protecting your privacy on Facebook.

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