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SAMJ: South African Medical Journal

On-line version ISSN 2078-5135
Print version ISSN 0256-9574


BOUTER, C; VENTER, B  and  ETHEREDGE, H. Guidelines for the use of WhatsApp groups in clinical settings in South Africa. SAMJ, S. Afr. med. j. [online]. 2020, vol.110, n.5, pp.364-368. ISSN 2078-5135.

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.

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