Social media can be a useful and accessible platform for health practitioners to market and promote their businesses to the community. However, health practitioners must be aware that publications on these platforms can be misinterpreted or deemed inappropriate and, in certain instances, result in a finding of professional misconduct.
The recent events of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as mandated vaccinations and testing, have contributed to increased social media activity by health practitioners. As a result, the NSW Health Professional Council has reported a rise in the number of complaints about the professional conduct of practitioners who are using social media to express or support views which are inconsistent with public health orders, or reputable scientific evidence.
The role of the state pharmacy authorities is to protect public safety, which involves receiving and actioning complaints about health practitioners. These regulatory authorities have upheld that any practitioners commenting on social media about Covid or other matters in a manner which contravenes the Health Practitioner National Law, the National Bord Standards, and the Guidelines and Code of Conduct, may result in regulatory action against that practitioner. Such action may include conducting hearings, placing conditions on any practitioner’s registration, and in more severe matters, registration may be cancelled.
Understanding Health Practitioner Professional Responsibility on Social Media
Health practitioners must be careful not to blur the lines between their personal views and their professional responsibility while using social media platforms. The public nature of social media means any content published can be instantly accessible to thousands of people, who can then share that information to any other audience without the consent of the creator of the original post.
The Pharmacy Council of NSW has released examples of conduct which could be construed as being inappropriate social media activity susceptible to a professional misconduct claim, these examples include:
- Commenting, sharing, endorsing, liking (or disliking as the case may be) information that contradicts public health orders or messaging, or information lacking in reputable scientific evidence;
- Being photographed or videoed engaging in activities that contravene professional responsibilities;
- Providing health advice on areas outside the scope of the particular health professional’s expertise;
- Commenting on a patient’s social media post or blog in a manner which may be interpreted as a breach of that patient’s privacy;
- Making false claims about the effectiveness of any treatment;
- Unprofessional, disrespectful, or threatening communications with or about patients and/or other practitioners, including through closed group social media channels;
- Advertising a regulated health service in a way that is false or misleading, or likely to be false or misleading;
- Advertising any material which may lead to self-diagnosis or inappropriate treatment; or
- Any advertisement relating to prescription medicines.
Health practitioners should be aware that information published on social media is often impossible to completely remove, evidencing the importance of carefully vetting what is posted online through both personal and professional accounts.
If relevant, the National Boards may consider any personal or private social media accounts of health practitioners, if publications on these accounts raise questions as to the practitioner’s ability to safely practice in their given field.
Ways to safeguard activity on social media platforms
Health practitioners should not be deterred from using social media altogether, acknowledging that it is a universal tool used by individuals and for businesses alike.
Health practitioners can safeguard their online activity to ensure they adhere to their professional responsibilities by:
- Ensuring they clearly understand their obligations under the Health Practitioner National Law, the National Board Standards, the Guidelines and Code of Conduct, and the AHPRA Guidelines for advertising a regulated health service;
- Complying with the confidentiality and privacy requirements owed to clients and/or patients, including by refraining from connecting with clients or patients on social media platforms;
- Updating the privacy settings of any social media accounts;
- Maintaining professional boundaries in online communications, with careful use of professional language and tone;
- Refraining from sharing, promoting, or endorsing false, misleading, or deceptive information in the industry; and
- Strictly supporting information that is consistent with public health orders and scientific evidence.
Social media platforms, when used professionally and appropriately, can be an excellent tool to promote businesses and market a wide range of goods and services, however health practitioners must utilize these platforms with care acknowledging their responsibility in the community. If you are unsure on your advertising requirements, and/or professional obligations, please do not hesitate to contact the pharmacy and commercial team at Long Saad Woodbridge Lawyers.
Important Disclaimer: The content of this article is general in nature and for reference purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Legal advice about your specific circumstances should always be obtained before taking any action based on this publication.