Human Tissue Authority

The regulator for human tissue and organs

Social media guidelines for anatomists – how they came about and how they link to the HTA

13 July 2020
Catherine Hennessy

I think the vast majority of people would agree with me that social media has become a huge part of how we communicate and keep informed, be that sharing a photo of a day on Instagram, tweeting about a recently published article or sending an update about work on WhatsApp. As somebody recently put it to me, social media can be a blessing and a curse, and this has never been truer than during the current COVID-19 pandemic since almost everyone has been forced to communicate using online technologies, including anatomy educators. For some time, anatomy educators have been using social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok as tools to help and engage students with anatomy learning with great success.

Maintaining professional conduct and professionalism on social media is important for most working professionals, however in the field of anatomy there is an additional challenge which is the appropriateness of posting human cadaveric material on social media. I remember how shocked I was the first time a post containing an image of cadaveric material popped up on my Facebook feed, and for me that feeling remains each time I see a new photo or video on my Facebook and Instagram feeds. It just doesn’t seem right. However, human cadaveric material continues to be frequently shared on social media, mostly for educational purposes but often not, and there is divided opinion amongst educators internationally regarding whether or not such content is appropriate. This sparked the need for guidelines to be written on how social media should be used by anatomists globally, which I, along with anatomy educators in the UK, USA and Australia have written.

In the UK, we have clear body donation programmes and a framework around receiving informed consent for capturing images in line with the principles of the Human Tissue Act 2004. The same cannot be said for all countries. As explained in the article, not only are there differences in international law for the use of human tissue, in many countries unclaimed bodies are primarily used for anatomy education rather than donors. So it impossible to guarantee that informed consent for capturing and sharing human cadaveric images has been acquired before such images are posted globally on social media. This is problematic because social media is, for better or for worse, boundaryless, meaning that clashes in standard practice arise and have the potential to cause offence and even damage the reputation of anatomy educators.

Of course, it may not be as negative as I have just suggested and there is a possibility that for many donors, they would be fully consenting to the capturing, sharing and publishing of images on social media. After all, as many may argue, what is the difference between publishing cadaveric images in an anatomy atlas versus on social media? - both are publicly available. We cannot deny that often cadaveric material is posting on social media with good educational intention by anatomy educators, so there is argument that it would be unethical to not make use of the good that can come from merging social media use with anatomy education. This is poignant since COVID-19 has forced most anatomy educators to rely on online technologies to be able to continue to educate students during lockdown. There is no getting away from the fact that online technologies including social media are here to stay and are going to form part of the future of anatomy education. Perhaps anatomy educators and body donation programmes worldwide need to evolve with this movement towards online and virtual education. In the article, we propose that body donation forms globally allow donors to give explicit informed consent for the capturing and publishing of images on public platforms. This would allow anatomy educators to only share cadaveric images which have been consented to and for such images to be accompanied by a statement stating the same, which we recommend becomes recommended standard practice by globally.

Hennessy, C.M., Royer, D.F., Meyer, A.J. and Smith, C.F. (2020), Social Media Guidelines for Anatomists. Anat Sci Educ, 13: 527-539. doi: 10.1002/ase.1948

Last updated on: 13 Jul 2020


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