Social media a minefield for doctors

Medical politics

By Tessa Hoffman

5 Sep 2017

The case of ten British doctors facing sanctions over misuse of social media serves as a cautionary tale for doctors in Australia.

Two doctors were suspended and another eight faced sanctions over their use of Facebook, Twitter, or WhatsApp between 1 January 2015 and 30 June 2017 following a probe by the UK watchdog the General Medical Council.

The results of the investigation into 28 doctors’ social media usage – triggered by complaints by patients and employers – are published in The BMJ, which obtained the information under freedom of information laws.

According to the journal, 10 doctors faced sanctions, 14 were cleared and another four were cleared after receiving advice.

Details of the nature of the transgressions were not published.

The case highlights how social media can be a minefield for doctors practicing in Australia, who need to adhere to rules set by AHPRA in its advertising guidelines and social media policy.

Under the guidelines a positive comment posted by a patient on a doctor’s social media account is considered a testimonial, and therefore banned under the National Law – with the owner of the account held accountable.

MDA National medicolegal manager Dr Sara Bird said major legal risk areas for doctors using social media involve breach of patient privacy, inappropriate comments made about employers or workplaces and inappropriate contact with patients.

There’s also been cases where doctors in training were disciplined after being caught criticising workplace environments or making inappropriate comments about patients on social media, she said.

In one case, a country NSW GP was suspended for three months in 2014 by a tribunal for forging inappropriate relationships with three patients, where Facebook was a major medium of communication and also used to convey blood test results and medical advice.

In its findings the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal said while texting medical results was now commonplace and a practical option, “it is important professionals bear in mind information conveyed by text messages and social media can easily be corrupted or misused”.

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