Social media: the common pitfalls

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AHPRA and the National Boards have released a new guide to help registered health practitioners understand and meet their obligations on social media

The guide reminds practitioners that when interacting online, they should maintain professional standards and be aware of the implications of their actions, just as when they interact in person. 

The guide does not stop practitioners from engaging online or via social media, the Board stresses; instead, it encourages practitioners to act ethically and professionally in any setting. 

To help practitioners meet their obligations, the guide also outlines some common pitfalls practitioners may encounter when using social media.

AHPRA points out that where relevant, Boards may consider social media use in the private life of a health practitioner – even when there is no identifiable link to the individual as a health professional – if the content raises concerns about fitness to hold registration.

“While you may think you are engaging in social media in a private capacity because you do not state you are a registered practitioner, it is relatively easy and simple for anyone to check your status through the register, or make connections using available pieces of information,” AHPRA warns.

“Take care when using apps and sites to ensure you do not inadvertently post or communicate publicly, while thinking you are communicating privately.

“Make sure you know and understand the relevant security and privacy settings.”

It gave several examples of how professional ethics can be breached, including around patient confidentiality; cultural awareness, safety and practitioner and patient beliefs; professionalism; maintaining professional boundaries; public health messages and advertising.

In a confidentiality example, “A radiographer proudly posts a selfie of his first day on the job – in front of an x-ray he had taken earlier, showing an open, compound fracture. The radiographer thought he wasn’t compromising patient privacy but was unaware that the name of the patient could be read, if the image were enlarged”.

Regarding social and clinical issues, AHPRA warns that social media messages could impact on a person’s sense of cultural safety, or lead to them feeling judged, intimidated or embarrassed.

An example is given of a health practitioner who works in a small town and who makes their religious views about sex before marriage and homosexuality public on Twitter.

In the example, the practitioner writes, ‘Abstinence is the best way to avoid HIV. Not sure why we are investing public dollars into developing vaccines. Just do what the bible tells us to do’.

“A patient sees this and now feels concerned they cannot reveal their sexuality to the practitioner, thereby compromising their health and safety,” AHPRA warns. “They make a notification about discrimination.”

Under “maintain professional boundaries,” AHPRA gives an example of a practitioner who starts a conversation on a dating website – and soon realises that the person they have been talking to is a patient of theirs.

“The practitioner mentions to his patient that it’s a ‘bit weird’ having a conversation on the website but continues the discussion,” the example says.

“Because the patient has a bad head cold, the practitioner offers treatment suggestions. The practitioner comments on his patient’s physical attractiveness and offers a house-call late at night.

“The patient makes a formal complaint about the conversation.”

AHPRA CEO Martin Fletcher said, ‘”Community trust in registered health practitioners is essential. Whether an online activity can be viewed by the public or is limited to a specific group of people, health practitioners have a responsibility to behave ethically and to maintain professional standards, as in all professional circumstances.”

In using social media, health practitioners should be aware of their obligations under the National Law, their Board’s Code of conduct, the Advertising guidelines and other relevant legislation, such as privacy legislation, AHPRA says.

While in this instance AHPRA does not refer to any specific incidents, the behaviour of health practitioners on social media has been of concern on several occasions, in Australia and internationally, in recent years.

For example earlier this year Dr Christopher Kwan Chen Lee was suspended – first for six weeks and then again after he made comments on a Singapore-based forum, Hardware Zone, including that “Some women deserve to be raped, and that supercilious little bitch fits the bill in every way,” and that “If my marriage fell apart, it would not end in divorce. It would end in murder”.

Research conducted in 2017 by the Faculty of Pharmacy at the University of Sydney found that community pharmacists are very aware of blurring the boundaries of professional and personal through social media, and mostly use it to correct misleading health information.

This guide replaces the Social Media Policy and is available on the Codes and guidelines section on the Board’s website. 

It is available here.

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