Social Media and the Dental Hygienist

Most of us have social media accounts or, if we don’t, we certainly know people who do. By social media accounts, we’re talking about a broad range of platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Blogs, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Google Plus etc.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, but you get the idea- social media means many different things and encompasses a variety of platforms with varying purposes and varying reach.

Organizations use social media all the time, @BCDHA is a handle many of you are undoubtedly familiar with!  When an organization tweets the focus is often much broader than an individual because relevant research, policy areas, topics of interest, news etc. are the focus.  The opinion and/or position of the organization is clear, as opposed to the perspectives of the individual. According to the Institutes of Health, 31% of organizations put such a premium on social media use they have developed specific guidelines for its use.  Guidelines of course ensure that everyone within the organization is on the ‘same page’ and that staff are aware of limitations to their actions online.

For healthcare providers, social media presents a host of challenges. It can blur professional and personal lives, it can be a bastion of misinformation and rumours, privacy of patient information can be breached, and we’ve all seen the stories of healthcare providers tarnishing the image of their profession by making dubious choices online. For example, a couple of years ago several nurses (not in Canada) took it upon themselves to photograph themselves with a nude, unconscious patient. These nurses were, quite rightly, subsequently fired.

But, there are numerous healthcare providers who use social media well and with maximum effectiveness.  Online you can find any number of physicians, nurses, social workers, pharmacists and dental hygienists who utilize the medium effectively and with great responsibility for their profession.  Most statistics show that physicians have taken to social media in the greatest numbers whereas pharmacists are the least likely to engage in social media.  Statistics also tell us that across all health, 31% of healthcare professionals use social media for professional networking (source MedTechMedia). The number of course is higher for those who use social media for other professional and personal purposes.

From the point of view of dental hygiene what are the pitfalls and what guidelines are in place that help to moderate its use?  And, should you care about the way in which members of the profession do or do not use social media?

First, let’s talk about why you should care.  To be blunt, social media is here to stay and you can either adapt or not. Realistically though, gone are the days when you contacted your clients by phone or waited for them to ‘walk-in’.  The number of people who use their smartphones to make telephone calls is on the decline.  For example, in 2012 roughly 96% of people used their phones to make phone calls within a week period. By 2015 that number had fallen to 75%.  This means that a growing number of people want to communicate by email, text, websites and even social media.  Moreover, using social media to communicate with clients is fast, effective and cheap!

You can also change the way in which you consult, network or engage with other healthcare providers. What if you want a physician or nursing perspective on a health related article that impacts oral care?  Blasting it out online and seeking input from your healthcare colleagues is the fastest way to do it.  These are merely examples, but what they tell us is that social media serves many purposes that can benefit your profession and that adapting is pretty critical as old interaction methods are quickly losing popularity.

As we’ve talked about, there are pitfalls in using social media and, like the nurses mentioned above, there have certainly been other documented instances of people who fail to understand that with social media use comes conduct expectations. From the fall 2014 issue of Access, a publication by the College of Dental Hygienists of BC (CDHBC), “It is also important to understand that professional standards for dental hygienists do not change when communicating or sharing information via these online platforms. Utilizing social media has implications related to ethical responsibilities such as confidentiality, privacy, professionalism, conflict of interest, and maintaining public trust. When incorporating social media into one’s practice, it is important to adhere to the CDHBC Dental Hygienists Regulation and Bylaws, and Code of Ethics to ensure that professional boundaries are maintained.”

Social media is a powerful tool.  There is no reason that healthcare providers shouldn’t fully embrace its use for professional and personal purposes.  The key is remembering that as healthcare providers you have the public trust and with this comes a level of professional responsibility that you must adhere too.  Social media can be fun, effective, far-reaching, interesting and engaging (and much more!), so long as you, the dental hygienist, remember the privilege of public trust and ensure that your professional and ethical standards are never compromised.

Common sense tips:

  • Use your privacy settings wisely to ensure that you’re being discreet.
  • Even still, do not post anything that you wouldn’t want a colleague or employer to see.
  • Ask yourself, ‘Would I say this to the person’s face?’, if the answer is no, don’t post it.
  • Remember, you are a healthcare professional and you have a Code of Ethics and Regulations and Bylaws developed by your College.  These not only govern your in-person interactions, but your online interactions as well.