Don't share your personal medical information (or that of anyone else) online. The ethical issues from the Tim Noakes Case High-res version

Last week, a disciplinary committee of the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) ruled that Prof Tim Noakes was not guilty of professional misconduct.  The HPCSA regulates most main-stream health professions in South Africa – medicine, dentistry, physiotherapy etc.  The complaint against Noakes revolved around the use of Twitter to dispense ‘medical advice’ and can be viewed in detail here.  I’m no expert on these issues – and I’m not going to debate the merits of the case or the ruling.  Rather, I want to highlight a ‘hidden’ risk of social media and medicine, one that I don’t think patients are always aware of.

Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) are often used in medical environments to share important information about patients with their treatment team.  This is a significant innovation, because it enhances the speed and quality of medical treatment that patients receive.  Health professionals are, however, bound to keep this information confidential.  Think of it like this – you go to your doctor because there is something amiss and the symptoms are very embarrassing.  You tell your doctor about your symptoms.  You feel comfortable doing this because you know that your doctor has to keep your information private.  If you didn’t trust health professionals, you probably wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing embarrassing information with them, and you might not seek-out the care you need to restore your health.

But then you go further – and share information about your condition on Twitter.  It is your information, and you can do what you like with it.  But I often wonder if people appreciate the implications of publishing their own health information (or someone else’s for that matter).  By tweeting Noakes, the breastfeeding patient inadvertently made her medical information (granted, it wasn’t really embarrassing) – which a doctor would be bound to keep confidential – available for the world to see.

There are two main problems with patients publishing their own medical information on social media (this excludes specialist support sites by the way – which are probably more selective and attract an audience with specific interests).

  1. It may result in unsolicited medical advice which isn’t accurate or evidence-based.  This could potentially derail a treatment plan.
  2. It raises questions about patient expectations of confidentiality.

Yes – we should all absolutely expect health professionals to keep our information confidential.  But we do seem a bit silly if, along with this expectation, we go and share our health information online ourselves.  If you publish your own (or someone else’s) medical information it makes the job of the person treating you that much more complex.  They have to counter with all the advice that your publication has solicited.  You could also put well-meaning health-professionals in a ‘grey area’ where, like Noakes, they may easily trip-up when trying to assist you.  In terms of guidelines and legislation, the role of social media and ICT in medicine still needs to be extrapolated.  In the meantime, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and your confidential medical information is your own.  Don’t share it on social media.

The views published in this blog are entirely my own (informed) opinions.  They are open to debate, discussion and disagreement.