Follow the link at the end of this article to test your knowledge of the subject and earn one hour of CPD.

Learning objectives

  • To allow dental professionals to have a better understanding of the implications of using social media on their professional practice, how to appropriately deal with online criticism and minimise the chances of dento-legal issues arising from poor management of online criticism.
  • To allow dental professionals to understand current GDC guidance relating to the appropriate use of social media.
  • To give dental professionals a basic understanding of the law relating to libel and defamation, and of the 'right to be forgotten'.

Whether we like it or not, social media is playing an increasing part in our everyday lives. In a recent survey, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that 66% of adults in Great Britain used the internet for social networking. In April 2016, Facebook attracted 38.9 million active users in the UK and Twitter 20.9 million; approximately 59% and 32% of the UK population, respectively.

Instagram, discussion forums, content communities and blogs are all increasingly popular and have many advantages in allowing better communication and widespread discussion and debate. Given this, it is maybe not surprising that patients are increasingly ready to go online to post comments about their dental care, using sites such as NHS Choices and Google Reviews.

While many comments may be positive, some are not, and hearing of a complaint or a criticism on social media may be very distressing.

Other than being the subject of overtly critical or unpleasant postings after a clinical interaction, there are other issues arising from the increasing use of social media which may lead to problems for DDU members.

  • The blurring of boundaries between personal and professional life. For example where patients make 'friend requests' to a dental professional.
  • The perception of anonymity in comments posted online. Some members might choose to comment on matters they feel are important in what is clearly a very public forum (for example, in a letter to a newspaper or a tweet), but not all members may be aware that what they perceive to be a private site may be visible to the public. In the absence of carefully managed privacy settings, patients, employers and organisations may easily access, and then react to, information left on social media.
  • The widespread impact a posting may have. Once a comment has been shared it is very hard to control. It may be viewed very widely - not just locally but globally. Any comment posted online has the potential to be shared indefinitely.

Over the past couple of years, the DDU has assisted several members who were concerned about critical comments made by patients online. The numbers are small, but this is nevertheless a growing area of calls to the DDU.

So what can dentists and dental care professionals do? If you are aware of a critical comment posted on social media or believe your reputation has been damaged online, there are a number of options available to you. These include:

  • responding directly to the negative comment
  • complaining to the website and asking for the offending material to be removed
  • a defamation action
  • using the 'right to be forgotten online' to remove the page from search results.

None of these options are without their risks and some aspects to consider are discussed briefly below.

Responding directly: points to consider

Patient confidentiality and inadvertent disclosure

It may be tempting to fire off a 'rapid response' to a comment viewed online, but before doing so it is important to consider the GDC guidance.

In its guidance the GDC says, 'Your professional responsibilities, such as patient confidentiality and professional courtesy, are still fundamental when you use social media.'

We would urge you to contact the DDU for advice before considering responding in any way.

The GDC acknowledges that anonymised online discussions about patients and best practice can offer both professional and educational benefits, and that online forums aimed at dental professionals can be helpful in finding advice about current practice in specific circumstances.

Its guidance goes on to say that, 'Many dental professionals use social media sites that are not accessible to the public to share and find information. However, you must remember that many social media groups, even those set up for dental professionals, may still be accessible to members of the public.'

Dental professionals who discuss patients or their care in a forum setting are therefore also vulnerable to criticism from the GDC.

Avoiding escalation

In trying to have a post removed, or in responding directly to criticism made about you or your work, you may inadvertently end up drawing more attention to the issue (and yourself) than the posting originally attracted.

Equally, taking legal action against a defamatory post and having the matter considered publicly in court could generate further, possibly unwelcome, publicity.

When a response may be helpful

It may be upsetting to receive criticism, but once you become aware of a concern, you are presented with the opportunity to respond in a positive way.

The NHS complaints procedure makes it clear that it is important to be open and honest with complainants and to learn lessons from complaints. One option that some practices choose is to reply to negative feedback on the NHS Choices site, thanking patients for their comments, apologising if they are not happy with their treatment and inviting them to contact the practice to discuss any concerns.

It may be upsetting to receive criticism, but once you become aware of a concern, you are presented with the opportunity to respond in a positive way.

Complaining to the website

The policy of the service provider

Most websites and forums prohibit the posting of abusive or offensive material. In the event that such material is posted, users are often able to report the posts to the service provider.

For example, Facebook says it may take action where material violates its Community Standards, such as hate speech. But it also reminds users that that 'something you don't like on Facebook may not go against our Community Standards.'

NHS Choices also makes it clear that, 'Just because you disagree with the opinion or believe it is wrong, it doesn't mean it is defamatory if published.' However, patient feedback on NHS Choices should comply with its Comments Policy. Any comments which breach their terms and conditions will be rejected. Contributors are advised to keep their comments 'constructive, relevant and civil'.

If you're concerned about the content of a post on NHS Choices, you can report using the link provided directly beneath each comment. Once reported as unsuitable, a comment will be temporarily removed. A moderator will then review the post, and decide if it is to be permanently removed or reinstated.

Correcting misleading information in the media

It may be possible to seek a correction, clarification and/or apology if you feel your clinical practice has been misrepresented in the press, on the TV or on the radio.

If you have concerns about the contents of a newspaper or magazine, or if an article has breached the Editors' Code of Practice, you can complain to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO, formally the Press Complaints Commission).

If you're concerned about the content of TV or radio programmes, you can approach the individual broadcaster or Ofcom. It is still important to consider patient confidentiality and the risk of the offending content being made more prominent.

If you're a DDU member and concerned about press reporting or media coverage, we would strongly advise you to contact our press office, who can advise further.

DDU and BSP periodontal e-learning

A defamation action

'Defamation' arises when a false statement is made which lowers someone's reputation in the view of right thinking people and its publication has caused, or is likely to cause, serious harm to their reputation.

However, The Defamation Act 2013 provides a number of defences for those who have made alleged defamatory comments, including:

  • the matter imputed was substantially true
  • that it was an honestly held opinion
  • that it was a statement on a matter of public interest
  • the statement is in a scientific or academic journal and is protected by privilege
  • that the website operator did not themselves post the comment.

In order to be successful, a defamation action must prove that the comment made is false and that it has or is likely to cause serious harm to that individual's reputation.

Defamation actions can be lengthy and expensive, and unfortunately it is difficult to predict the outcome with any certainty. Particularly if an action goes to trial, the publicity generated often means the defamatory comment reaches a wider audience than the original statement. It is therefore not generally in the interests of DDU members to use our mutual fund to pursue defamation actions.

The right to be forgotten online

In 2014, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled that search engine operators are data controllers and that individuals had the right to ask them to remove search results on privacy grounds if these 'appear to be inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive'.

The ruling said 'a fair balance should be sought' between the right to privacy and the public interest, which may depend on:

  • the nature of the information in question and its sensitivity for the individual's private life
  • public interest in having that information, which may vary according to the individual's role in public life.

The major search engines Google, Bing and Yahoo have created web forms to request the removal of search results. For example, Google says:

'In evaluating your request, we will look at whether the results include outdated information about your private life. We'll also look at whether there's a public interest in the information remaining in our search results – for example, we may decline to remove certain information about financial scams, professional malpractice, criminal convictions, or public conduct of government officials.'

When considering whether to make a request, you should also remember:

  • web pages and documents will not be removed from the internet, only the opportunity to access them via a search engine link
  • the judgment also only applies to EU countries; it may still be possible to navigate to the particular page by using a completely different search term, or the same search term entered into a search engine outside the EU
  • having a website link erased may not be the end of the matter and may itself attract comment.

Summary

We understand that it may be distressing to receive criticism or a complaint arising from the care of patients from any source, but the DDU can help its members deal with and resolve these situations. If concerned about online criticism, we would strongly suggest members contact the DDU directly for advice.

Follow this link to test your learning from the article and earn one hour of CPD.

Before doing so, we recommend reading the GDC's guidance on dentists' use of social media.


This article was correct at publication on 08/12/2017. It is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.

Susan N'Jie

DDU dento-legal adviser

Sue qualified from Guy's Hospital Dental School in 1986 and went into general dental practice in the UK. She spent two years in South Africa helping to set up dental practices in Johannesburg. After 20 years in general dental practice, she joined the Dental Law Partnership, advising on the clinical aspects of negligence claims. Sue joined the DDU in April 2011 and works as a full-time dento-legal adviser.

See more by Susan N'Jie