Ethical implications of digital communication for the patient-clinician relationship: Analysis of interviews with clinicians and young adults with long term conditions (the LYNC study)

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


  • Anne-Marie Slowther
  • Patrick Elder
  • Carol Bryce
  • Kathryn Hamilton
  • Caroline Huxley
  • Vera Forjaz
  • Jackie Sturt
  • Frances Griffiths

Colleges, School and Institutes

External organisations

  • Warwick Medical School, University of Warwick
  • King's College London


Background: Digital communication between a patient and their clinician offers the potential for improved patient care, particularly for young people with long term conditions who are at risk of service disengagement. However, its use raises a number of ethical questions which have not been explored in empirical studies. The objective of this study was to examine, from the patient and clinician perspective, the ethical implications of the use of digital clinical communication in the context of young people living with long-term conditions.

Methods: A total of 129 semi-structured interviews, 59 with young people and 70 with healthcare professionals, from 20 United Kingdom (UK)-based specialist clinics were conducted as part of the LYNC study. Transcripts from five sites (cancer, liver, renal, cystic fibrosis and mental health) were read by a core team to identify explicit and implicit ethical issues and develop descriptive ethical codes. Our subsequent thematic analysis was developed iteratively with reference to professional and ethical norms.

Results: Clinician participants saw digital clinical communication as potentially increasing patient empowerment and autonomy; improving trust between patient and healthcare professional; and reducing harm because of rapid access to clinical advice. However, they also described ethical challenges, including: difficulty with defining and maintaining boundaries of confidentiality; uncertainty regarding the level of consent required; and blurring of the limits of a clinician’s duty of care when unlimited access is possible. Paradoxically, the use of digital clinical communication can create dependence rather than promote autonomy in some patients. Patient participants varied in their understanding of, and concern about, confidentiality in the context of digital communication. An overarching theme emerging from the data was a shifting of the boundaries of the patient-clinician relationship and the professional duty of care in the context of use of clinical digital communication.

Conclusions: The ethical implications of clinical digital communication are complex and go beyond concerns about confidentiality and consent. Any development of this form of communication should consider its impact on the patient-clinician-relationship, and include appropriate safeguards to ensure that professional ethical obligations are adhered to.

Keywords: digital communication, ethical issues, young people


Original languageEnglish
Article number11
JournalBMC Medical Ethics
Publication statusPublished - 23 Feb 2018


  • digital communication, ethical issues, young people