THE Royal College is offering advice to its members aimed at preventing them falling foul of the law of the land or their own professional disciplinary process when using new communications technologies.
At its meeting last month, the RCVS council approved new guidance notes on the use of social media and online networking forums. That document will be accessible on the college website and recognises that social media is a part of everyday life for many veterinary surgeons and members of the animal-owning public, said David Catlow, who chairs the college’s standards committee.
“It provides guidance and a reminder that professional standards need to be upheld both on-and offline.”
Protection of privacy
The guidance looks in particular at the need for veterinarians to protect both their own privacy and to maintain client confidentiality in regard to any information posted online. The committee noted that these responsibilities extend to colleagues at all times, including when operating in a virtual world as an avatar or under an alias.
“They may put their registration at risk if they demonstrate inappropriate behaviour when using social media,” it warns.
The standards committee also recognised the risk of veterinary surgeons or practices becoming victims of adverse comments posted online by disgruntled clients.
“Veterinary surgeons should seek to avoid engaging in disputes in a public forum and may invite clients who make negative comments or raise concerns to contact the practice directly to discuss it further. Discretion should be used when deciding how much to say publicly,” the guidance states.
Concerns about inappropriate comments may be reported to the site administrator or internet service provider who may ensure that the comments are removed. But if the member considers that the allegations made by the client are defamatory, it suggests taking legal advice from an independent solicitor or the BVA legal helpline.
The committee also highlighted the dangers of colleagues themselves breaching the Data Protection Act 1998 and says caution should be taken so as not to disclose information which could result in a complaint either to the Information Commissioner’s Office or to the RCVS. “Those involved may need to seek specific advice from the ICO on matters of data protection, as appropriate,” it suggests.
Similar concerns about the dangers of online communications tools form part of the rationale for another guidance document for veterinarians approved by council. This was a guide for veterinary students on fitness to practise produced by the RCVS in collaboration with representatives of each of the seven British veterinary schools. It will be circulated among their current and future undergraduate bodies.
The document offers guidance to the schools on handling fitness to practise issues and to the students on their responsibilities, which the committee points out will go beyond those expected of their university contemporaries on other courses.
“The veterinary student is expected to represent the future of the profession and they must be prepared for life in practice in a public-facing role,” it warns.
One of the hazards facing veterinary students of this and all previous generations is that overindulgence in alcohol may impair their performance. One council member expressed concern that students may be convinced by reading the guidance that behaviour that has long been part of student life might endanger their career.
But as the education committee chairman, Chris Tuffnell, noted, the current generation faces risks which would not have been present even a few years ago.
“When we were students, we were not followed around by a lot of people with smartphones ready to film what we were doing and put the results up on Twitter or Facebook,” he observed.