More than 40% of nurses say a colleague has inappropriately posted details of patients or colleagues on social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter, an exclusive Nursing Times survey has revealed.
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The poll of nearly 1,000 Nursing Times readers is the largest snapshot to date of how nurses view and use social networking sites.
3% said colleagues had used social media to pursue a sexual relationship with a patient or service user
It follows the publication earlier this month of guidance by the Nursing and Midwifery Council, which was sparked by a rise in disciplinary cases relating to the use of social media by health professionals.
The majority of nursing organisations, including the NMC, have used social networking to improve communication with members and have encouraged individuals to use it to build professional networks.
But the survey results show many in the profession are yet to be convinced of the potential benefits.
While 59% of survey respondents said they used a form of social media every day, nearly the same proportion believed it would not help them improve clinical practice to become a better nurse.
A majority - 56% - of nurses thought, overall, that social media was a positive development for the nursing profession but 44% disagreed.
In addition, 32% of respondents felt nurses were sharing too much information about work issues.
Most significantly, 42% of respondents were aware of colleagues in their ward or team having used social media inappropriately, for example to criticise a named colleague or patient. This would breach the NMC code of conduct.
Of those reporting inappropriate use, 75% said team members had discussed the behaviour of colleagues and 32% said they had discussed patients.
More than one in 10 said colleagues had taken photographs of patients or service users, and 3% said colleagues had used social media to pursue a sexual relationship with a patient or service user - practices banned by the NMC.
Andy Jaeger, NMC assistant director of professional and public communications, pointed out that sexual relationships with patients were “never going to be acceptable”, whether social media was used or not.
He warned that taking photographs was a significant issue due to advances in mobile phone technology. Nurses were increasingly “walking around with mobiles in their pocket”, which made taking pictures much easier, he said.
He said any picture taken in the care environment represented a “clinical record and should be treated as such”, and staff should also follow employers’ guidance.
But only 35% of survey respondents said their employer had a policy in place on the use of mobile phones in clinical settings - a further 36% said they did not know.
Fewer than half of respondents - 46% - said their employer had a policy in place for using social media.
Sue Sleeman, a barrister with Doughty Street Chambers who represents nurses and midwives in NMC hearings, said employer guidance was often limited to telling staff not to use social media sites during work hours.
She said the NMC advice was “helpful” but that higher profile education on social media should be prioritised, particularly by employers.
Last year, the NMC struck off Timothy Hyde, a community psychiatric nurse at Wells community team and Glastonbury health centre in Somerset, after he used Facebook to begin a relationship with a patient - the regulator’s first case directly involving social media.
But Ms Sleeman said she thought such examples were likely to be in the minority. “It would have to be a pretty serious misuse of Facebook to result in a strike off. Most of the time it’s going to be a caution,” she said.
She added using a “pen name” when using such sites could be a way of mitigating disciplinary action. By “taking the trouble to anonymise themselves”, a nurse might argue they had “tried not to bring the profession into disrepute”, she said.
But she noted that the best mode of protection was to avoid using social media - in the same way that civil servants were advised not to. She said: “If you don’t use it, you can’t get into bother.”