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Meeting your obligations under the national law with social media

20 November 2019

AHPRA have recently released a revised guideline to assist clinicians in meeting their regulatory obligations when using social media such as Facebook, WhatsApp, LinkedIn, WeChat, Whitecoat, YouTube and Whirlpool, to name just a few. Dr Simon Parsons, dentolegal adviser at Dental Protection, reviews the updated guidance and highlights what you need to know

These updates are primarily intended to ensure the safety and welfare of the public, by helping practitioners avoid inadvertent harm to their patients from the inappropriate use of social media. Such harm might arise, for example, when a practitioner posts information about a patient or the patient’s treatment on what is thought to be a private social media communication, only to find this information shared publicly without their consent. Any such event might seriously damage the trust between a patient and a practitioner and could lead to a serious complaint or notification to AHPRA, as well as other legal action such as litigation.

What are your obligations?

Dental practitioners must continue to ensure they preserve their patients’ privacy and confidentiality, maintain professional boundaries (eg avoid the use of social media dating sites to meet up with patients), comply with codes of conduct, and ensure full compliance with advertising regulations. If making claims about the efficacy of a treatment, any such claims must be based on sound scientific evidence. In addition, commentary about patients, colleagues and treatments must remain professional and respectful, to avoid allegations of defamation. Social media is clearly an unwise channel for airing one’s dirty laundry!

How might you meet these obligations?

Perhaps the first issue to remember with social media is that once any information is in the public domain, it can be very difficult to remove. Discretion needs to be exercised, to ensure any content is appropriate to its intended audience and cannot be taken out of its intended context. Ask yourself the question, “Am I comfortable knowing that once this information is out there, I can’t remove or alter it easily?” If you aren’t, it might be preferable to avoid posting a comment, article or response.

Secondly, ask yourself whether the content might be seen as damaging to another’s reputation, or your own. It is not uncommon for prospective employers to search social media sites in their screening of job candidates, and AHPRA have indicated in their guidelines that they may similarly review social media platforms when considering whether a health professional is of appropriate standing to maintain their professional registration. Is your post worded in a professional way, using appropriate language? Is the image of a late-night drunken get-together something that might reflect poorly on you or your colleagues professionally? Do you have the permission of everyone who may be identifiable in an image or post to share their identities in your communication?

If making a communication via social media with another health professional, it can be prudent to emphasise the nature of this communication so that there is no misunderstanding. For example, if sharing information for purposes of referral, this should be clearly articulated. A subsequent communication to the same practitioner, expressing your concerns about a patient’s behaviour or attitude, might require a warning to avoid sharing this opinion with the patient concerned.

While some social media options provide effective end-to-end encryption (such as WhatsApp), others may not, and the onus is on the practitioner to ensure that the privacy of a patient’s information is maintained at all times. Any images or content being posted in a public domain should have all key identifying information redacted, such as a patient’s name, date of birth, address, health fund membership number, Medicare number or other unique identifier. If you are unsure about the privacy of a social media communication, and the scope for the information to be shared without your (or your patient’s) express permission, we recommend you avoid using that medium.

Where we may have a particular view about a public health initiative, a new form of treatment, a personal opinion about moral behaviour, or generic advice about preferred treatment options, the use of discretion in airing those views in social media is highly recommended. There may be nothing wrong with holding any of these views privately, but they may have unintended consequences once out in the public domain. Consider the ongoing issues with the social media comments from Israel Folau and remember that in rare instances one’s career and public image can quickly become the focus of unwanted media attention.

Finally, consider comments or responses to reviews on social media carefully. AHPRA have clear advertising guidelines around the appropriate use of social media in advertising your services. Practitioners must ensure that where they comment in response to reviews by patients, these are not construed as selective testimonials about the suitability of that treatment for others, or seen as the advertising of one’s services. Patient feedback should not be edited nor republished on one’s practice website as endorsements about your practice or the quality of your care. It is essential to avoid any allegations of false or misleading claims about the safety or efficacy of treatment you may provide on social media sites, to avoid action from AHPRA or other regulatory bodies.

For further information and practical examples of how to best comply with social media guidelines, we recommend you visit:

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