The Do’s and Don’ts of Social Media and Online Networking for Health Practitioners

24 January 2019

The Rise of Social Media

Social media has expanded rapidly in the last decade and is a powerful tool for people to share opinions, information, experiences, images, and video or audio clips.

The use of social media can have an enormous benefit for people – both personally and professionally – and allows people to communicate and interact with a wide-reaching audience. It is estimated that 79% of Australians now use social media.

On the flip side, social media can present challenges for health practitioners as it is essential to maintain ethical and regulatory responsibilities when interacting online, just as it is when interacting in person.

The Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA), together with the 14 National Boards that regulate registered health practitioners has, developed a social media policy to assist health practitioners understand their obligations when using social media and can be found here.

The Do’s of Social Media

When using social media, health practitioners should:

Maintain professional obligations

When using social media, just with all aspects of professional behaviour, health practitioners must remember to comply with the Health Practitioner National Law (the National Law) and their National Board’s code of ethics and professional conduct (the Code of Conduct).

A health practitioner must maintain their professional obligations whether their online activity is able to be viewed by the public or is limited to a specific group of people (including a closed, “invisible” group).

Comply with confidentiality and privacy obligations

Respecting the privacy and confidentiality of a patient remains paramount in an online setting. Accordingly, health practitioners should not use social media to discuss patients or post pictures of procedures, case studies, patients, or sensitive material which may enable patients to be identified without having obtained consent in appropriate situations.

Posting unauthorised information or photographs of patients in any medium is a breach of the patient’s privacy and confidentiality, including on a personal social media site or a group even where the privacy settings are at their highest.

Present information in an unbiased, evidence based context

AHPRA reinforces the National Law which states that health practitioners “cannot make misleading or unsubstantiated claims, or claim unreasonable expectation of benefit”.

Health practitioners must present information in an unbiased, evidence-based context and check content sourced from elsewhere before publishing it because practitioners are responsible for what they publish, even if it was written by someone else.

Health practitioners must also be wary of creating an unreasonable expectation of beneficial treatment or encouraging the unnecessary use of a health service. Therefore, health practitioners should avoid use of words like “cure”, “safe”, “effective” or “can help/improve/treat” as these words can potentially constitute false or misleading statements.

The Don’ts of Social Media

When using social media, health practitioners should NOT:

Use testimonials about the service or business

When using social media, health practitioners must remember that the National Law and the Guidelines for advertising regulated health services (the Advertising guidelines) apply.

Health practitioners are prohibited from using patient testimonials on a site or in social media that advertises a regulated health service. “Testimonials” is defined very broadly to include statements, reviews, feedback about a service received and involves recommendations or positive statements about clinical aspects of a health service.

Health practitioners are responsible for removing testimonials published on a website or in social media over which they have control (for example, patients posting comments about a practitioner on the practitioner’s business website or social media account). However, health practitioners are not responsible for removing (or trying to have removed) unsolicited testimonials published on a website or on social media over which they do NOT have control (for example, Google reviews).

Post information that could harm or damage their professional reputation

Health practitioners must be mindful that information and photographs circulated on social media may end up in the public domain, and remain there, irrespective of the intent at the time of posting.

Therefore, in addition to maintaining their professional obligations in accordance with the National Law and the Code of Conduct, health practitioners should be mindful to ensure that their social media posts reflects their practice and professional reputation in a positive way.

Cross professional boundaries

Health practitioners should be aware that they must continue to maintain professional boundaries with patients in an online setting. For this reason, health practitioners should avoid “friending” their patients on their personal social media accounts and should not use social media to socially communicate with patients or to discuss their medical conditions or treatments.

If a patient shows an interest in keeping up to date with a health practitioner’s practice, health practitioners should encourage patients to ‘like’ or ‘follow’ a business page (if available) and keep communications strictly professional.

Implications for Health Practitioners

While social media allows people to communicate and interact on an informal basis, health practitioners must ensure that their online presence reflects the high standard of professionalism expected by the community and medical peers. What a health practitioner does online can have real world consequences.

Inappropriate online behaviour can potentially damage a health practitioner’s personal integrity, the practitioner/patient relationship and a practitioner’s relationships with colleagues, as well as future employment opportunities.

Failure to maintain professional standards online could also lead to possible disciplinary action for unprofessional conduct/ unsatisfactory professional conduct or professional misconduct.

Health practitioners should ensure that they are complying with the National Law, the Code of Conduct and the Advertising Guidelines while they participate in the online world.

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