In Practice

Guidelines for the use of WhatsApp groups in clinical settings in South Africa

C Bouter, B Venter, H Etheredge

Abstract


In everyday clinical practice, healthcare professionals (HCPs) are exposed to large quantities of confidential patient information, and many use WhatsApp groups to share this information. WhatsApp groups provide efficient mechanisms for clinical management advice, decision-making support and peer review. However, most HCPs do not fully understand the legal and ethical implications of sharing content in a WhatsApp group setting, which is often thought to be hosted on a secure platform and therefore removed from public scrutiny. In our paper, we unpack the legal and ethical issues that arise when information is shared in WhatsApp groups. We demonstrate that sharing content in this forum is tantamount to the publication of content; in other words, those who share content are subject to the same legal ramifications as a journalist would be. We also examine the role of the WhatsApp group administrator, who bears an additional legal burden by default, often unknowingly so. We consider the recommendations made by the Health Professions Council of South Africa in their guidelines for the use of social media, and highlight some areas where we feel the guidelines may not adequately protect HCPs from the legal repercussions of sharing content in a WhatsApp group. Finally, we provide a set of guidelines for WhatsApp group users that should be regularly posted onto the group by the relevant group administrator to mitigate some of the legal liabilities that may arise. We also provide guidelines for group administrators.


Authors' affiliations

C Bouter, Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa

B Venter, Centre for Health, Law and Society, University of Bristol Law School, University of Bristol, UK

H Etheredge, Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg; and Department of Internal Medicine, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa

Full Text

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Keywords

Social media; Healthcare; Legislation; WhatsApp; WhatsApp groups; South Africa; Publication; Publication legislation; HPCSA Guidelines

Cite this article

South African Medical Journal 2020;110(5):364-368. DOI:10.7196/SAMJ.2020.v110i5.14558

Article History

Date submitted: 2020-04-29
Date published: 2020-04-29

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