The Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) and National Boards have released a new guide to help registered health practitioners understand and meet their obligations when using social media and avoid common pitfalls.
The guide does not prevent practitioners from engaging and interacting online via social media, instead advising them to act ethically and professionally, meet their obligations under National Law and be mindful of the implications of their actions.
“Community trust in registered health practitioners is essential,” AHPRA CEO Martin Fletcher said.
“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 maintain professional standards, as in all professional circumstances.”
The new guide states health practitioners can meet their obligations by complying with confidentiality and privacy, maintaining professional boundaries and communicating professionally and respectfully with or about patient, colleagues and employers.
It encourages health practitioners to be careful about the information they publish on social media, as it can often be difficult to remove and circulated widely and rapidly.
“Inappropriate use of social media can result in harm to patients and the profession, particularly given the changing nature of privacy and the capacity for material to be posted by others,” AHPRA warns.
“Harm may include breaches of confidentiality, defamation of colleagues or employers, violation of practitioner-patient boundaries or an unintended exposure of personal information to the public, employers, consumers and others.”
The guide outlines common pitfalls, for example, the need to understand that National Boards may scrutinise social media use in private life even if there is no link to the registered health practitioner’s job role.
“While you may think you are engaging on 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.
“Take care when using apps and sites that you do not inadvertently post or communicate publicly.”
The guide provides several examples of how social media activity can trigger someone to make a notification about a registered practitioner.
Importantly, AHPRA encourages health practitioners to take care when sharing information, including comments or photos, to avoid inadvertently disclosing patient information.
“A mother posts an update about her daughter’s admission to hospital, following a car accident. The mother tags her friend, a health practitioner, who happened to be on the ward the night the daughter was admitted. The tag is complimentary about the care received at the hospital. The nurse responds publicly to the comment, thinking it was a private message and inadvertently provides information about the daughter’s recovery and the status of the other passengers in the car. Parents of the other passengers make a formal complaint about the privacy breach.”
In regard to cultural awareness, safety and practitioner and patient beliefs, the guide says health practitioners’ views on clinical issues can be influential and social media comments may impact on someone’s sense of cultural safety or lead to them feeling judged, intimated or embarrassed.
“A health practitioner, who works in a small town makes their religious views about sex before marriage and homosexuality public by tweeting: ‘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. They make a notification about discrimination.”
When it comes to public health messages, the guide says social media posts revealing personal beliefs about the efficacy or safety of some public health initiatives should be consistent with the codes, standards and guidelines of the profession and not contradict public health campaigns.
A registered health practitioner who makes comments, endorses or shares information which contradicts current scientific evidence could legitimise false health-related information and breach professional responsibilities, AHPRA warns.
“A nurse regularly posts anti-vaccination views on her personal Facebook profile, including that vaccinations cause autism and other information which contradicts the evidence base and public health programs. Her professional standards, codes and guidelines make it clear that using evidence in the practice of her profession, as well as supporting public health initiatives, are part of her professional responsibilities. A colleague regularly sees her posts and decides to look at the Code of Conduct for Nurses for Guidance. The code says that ‘To promote health for nursing practice, nurses must understand and promote the principles of public health, such as health promotion activities and vaccination.’ The Code also says that nurses must ‘understand and apply the principles of primary and public health, including health education, health promotion, disease prevention, control and health screening using the best available evidence in making practice decisions.’ The colleague decides to make a notification about the nurse’s conduct to AHPRA.”
The new social media guide can be viewed in full here.