Social media allows us to connect with a wide audience, promote health messaging, combat myths, and contribute to public discourse. On a personal level, we can use it to build a support network and stay in touch with friends and colleagues all over the country and the world. However, social media can just as easily be misused or misunderstood by doctors, causing irreversible damage to reputation, business, career prospects, and the public's trust.
For those in the medical profession, personal and professional reputation are heavily intertwined. Therefore, it’s always important to consider how your social media activity may reflect on you as a doctor or reflect on the profession – no matter the platform, purpose or intended audience.
It’s best to take a cautious approach to using social media, particularly since it’s a public forum. Once a post or interaction is published on the internet, it leaves a permanent digital footprint.
Your professional responsibilities
The public’s trust and confidence in medical practitioners is integral to the continued functioning of the health care system. This trust is founded on the understanding that health practitioners are fit and proper individuals who comply with professional standards and a code of conduct, and whose practice is based on reputable scientific evidence.
Your legal and professional responsibilities apply equally in face-to-face interactions as they do on social media, which is part of the public domain. You can fulfil these responsibilities by:
- Complying with professional obligations as defined in the Medical Board of Australia Code of Conduct
- Complying with confidentiality and privacy requirements
- Maintaining professional boundaries with patients, colleagues and employers
- Communicating professionally and respectfully with or about patients, colleagues and employers
- Complying with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (Ahpra) Advertising Guidelines to ensure any advertising or information presented is not false, misleading or deceptive, and
- Only supporting information that is consistent with public health messaging and reputable scientific evidence.
'Going viral’ isn’t always a good thing
Personal activity on social media is in the public domain – even if it takes place from private social media accounts. Once you post, share or 'like' content, this activity is recorded publicly and is out of your control. Content can quickly be copied, screen shotted, reposted, and presented to a broader audience in any format, without your knowledge or consent. It can also be easily taken out of context or misconstrued – for example, sharing controversial information meant to incite discussion in your professional network, may be perceived as you endorsing that information.
The Medical Council of NSW has seen a recent upturn in complaints about doctors making comments about COVID-19 on social media that contradict public health messaging. When a complaint is received by the Council, it is responsible for assessing the complaint in consultation with the NSW Health Care Complaints Commission (HCCC). Where appropriate, the Council can take regulatory action to protect the health and safety of the public and support doctors to meet professional standards.
What activity is inappropriate on social media?
Social media activity is inappropriate if it conflicts with the law, professional standards, the Medical Board of Australia Code of Conduct, reputable scientific evidence, public health orders, or public health messaging. Such behaviour can pose a risk to the public and lead to complaints or regulatory action against the doctor involved.
Inappropriate social media activity includes:
- Activity that contradicts public health orders, public health messaging or reputable scientific evidence such as:
- Making comments, endorsing or sharing information, or posting ‘likes’ or ‘dislikes’ with or without additional comments
- Being photographed or videoed engaging in activities or events that conflict with professional responsibilities
- Providing health advice on areas outside the scope of your profession or individual professional competencies
- Commenting on a post made by a patient that could be seen as breaching the patient’s privacy
- Using social media to connect with patients, and
- Unprofessional, disrespectful or threatening communications with or about patients and/or other practitioners, including through closed group social media channels.
Tips for using social media
- Before publishing content, think carefully about how you would feel if your patients, colleagues or employer saw it.
- Don’t post anything that endorses activities or behaviour that could damage your professional reputation or be in breach of your professional obligations.
- Assume that online posts exist forever, and never rely on the ability to delete what you have posted.
- For personal accounts, consider not using your full name.
- Don’t accept friend requests of/connect with people who you don’t know personally, or who is a patient of yours.
- Control the use of your image online and make sure photos that easily identify you are not visible to the public.
- Familiarise yourself with the social media policies of your employer and profession.
Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency - Social media: How to meet your obligations under the National Law (ahpra.gov.au)
Medical Board of Australia - Good medical practice: a code of conduct for doctors in Australia
Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency - Acceptable evidence in health advertising (ahpra.gov.au)
2020 AMA Social Media Guide
Avant - Social media for doctors keeping it professional
Patient privacy (nsw.gov.au)
Confidentiality - MDA National
Medical Board of Australia - Sexual boundaries in the doctor-patient relationship