Medical students are warned about misuse of social media in new GMC guidance
The regulator has invited students to give feedback on new guidance on maintaining professional standards
The General Medical Council has issued draft guidance on the standards expected of medical students while they are undertaking their studies, including their use of social media.
In the document Medical students: professional values, the regulator says patients must be able to trust doctors with their health and provides students with examples of unprofessional behaviour that could undermine the trust shown in them and lead to fitness to practise proceedings.
When using social media, students are reminded to not share identifiable information about patients or make discriminatory comments about individuals or groups of people. Other examples of unprofessional behaviour cited include alcohol consumption that affects clinical work, challenging behaviour towards clinical teachers, and plagiarism. Advice is also provided on raising concerns about the behaviour of peers, alongside details on conscientious objection.
The document was co-authored with the Medical Schools Council (MSC) and is due to be formally introduced in early 2016. It is now undergoing a three month public consultation period. Students have been invited to give their feedback via the GMC website before 11 November 2015.
Terence Stephenson, chair of the GMC, told Student BMJ that this advice for medical students was initially “due to be updated” this year. However, the results of a GMC survey on student professionalism published in May 2015 could have influenced the move to consult further on the guidance.
The survey, which recorded the attitudes of more than 2500 UK medical students towards professional conduct, asked them to judge how acceptable various scenarios were. It found that 24% of medical students believed it was acceptable to board a train without paying and 8% felt it was permissible to buy prescription drugs online to be able to study for longer.
In response to the survey’s findings, the GMC said that some students’ responses showed a tolerance towards unprofessional behaviour. This has prompted the regulator to reinforce the professional behaviours required in Medical students: professional values to “make clearer the importance of maintaining standards of behaviour outside of the medical school context.”
Stephenson told Student BMJ that medical schools “deal with around 350-400 concerns about a student’s of conduct or health per year.” Around 60 of these cases reach the threshold of fitness to practice proceedings, which “may lead to a hearing to determine if the student is able to continue studying medicine.” Common concerns include “students’ dishonesty, non-attendance or drug convictions.”
Jonathan Gibb, one of the medical students involved in drafting the new guidelines, assures students that “no matter how much of a nuisance it may feel, professionalism is very necessary.” He describes how these guidelines will help students “navigate the barrier separating their working lives from their private lives,” remembering the “fear” he had felt as a fresher when faced with the pressures of professional conduct.
It is unclear how students will react to some aspects of the guidance, especially on the issue of social media. One medical student told Student BMJ that they had been “affected by the vagueness of some GMC guidance,” and would like further examples to explain exactly what constitutes “misuse.” Currently, the misuse of social media is a subset of other guidance on raising concerns about peers, patient confidentiality, and treating patients and colleagues fairly and without discrimination. Students are recommended to read the GMC’s guidance on social media use for doctors, which is available on the GMC website. However, the GMC’s own survey indicates that students often make good judgments on social media. When asked if it was acceptable for a student to criticise a lecturer on Facebook, 87% of students deemed such behaviour to be unacceptable.
Despite these concerns, Twishaa Sheth, deputy co-chair of the BMA’s medical students committee, welcomed the guidance. Speaking to Student BMJ, Sheth described an inconsistency in the advice available to medical students. “As we all know, Good Medical Practice  for doctors is well-established, however there was no formal guidance with regard to what this meant for students,” she said. Sheth noted that the draft guidance “feels accessible to a medical student without being too difficult to read or understand.”
You can read the guidelines and provide feedback via the GMC website: https://gmc.e-consultation.net/econsult/consultation_Dtl.aspx?consult_Id=624&status=2&criteria=I.George Gillett, fourth year medical student
1University of Oxford, UK
Correspondence to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Competing interests: None declared.
Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.
- General Medical Council, Medical Schools Council. Medical students: professional values, 2015. https://gmc.e-consultation.net/econsult/uploaddocs/Consult624/Medical%20students_professional%20values_FINAL.pdf.
- General Medical Council. Guidance for medical students and medical schools on professional values and fitness to practise—a public consultation on our draft guidance, 2015. https://gmc.e-consultation.net/econsult/consultation_Dtl.aspx?consult_Id=624&status=2&criteria=I.
- General Medical Council. Student professionalism: our survey of medical students, 2015. www.gmc-uk.org/Student_professionalism_our_survey_of_medical_students.pdf_60873369.pdf.
- General Medical Council. Doctors’ use of social media, 2013. www.gmc-uk.org/Doctors__use_of_social_media.pdf_51448306.pdf.
- General Medical Council. Good Medical Practice, 2013. www.gmc-uk.org/guidance/good_medical_practice.asp.
Cite this as: Student BMJ 2015;23:h4586