Articles and Case Studies

A case of suspension by social media

07 Dec 2020

Dr Sara Bird

by Dr Sara Bird

Social Media Platforms

A GP’s registration was suspended as a result of his social media commentary on clinical issues and his opinions about certain religions and other groups.1

Case history

The Practice Manager made a notification to Ahpra about the GP. The notification prompted an investigation into the GP’s use of social media, including his personal Facebook page and four Facebook pages of entities he established or represented.

His posts expressed views about clinical issues including vaccination, chemotherapy, and treatment of COVID-19. There were disparaging comments about medical practitioners and the hospital system. One post stated: “IF YOU SEE A PSYCHIATRIST YOU MAY AS WELL SEE AN UNDERTAKER!!” Some of the posts were denigrating and demeaning to the LGBTQI community and the religion of Islam. Other posts included anti-abortion sentiments.

Medico-legal issues

Ahpra issued a notice of proposed immediate action. In response, the GP offered an undertaking to close his social media accounts; that he would not reopen any of the accounts or post on social media; and that he would make all efforts to delete his social media commentary. Despite this offer, a decision was made to suspend his registration.

The GP appealed this decision to the Tribunal and the findings were handed down on 10 August 2020. The Tribunal considered the following questions:

  • Did the GP pose a serious risk to persons?
  • Was it necessary to take immediate action to protect public health or safety?
  • Was immediate action otherwise in the public interest?

The Tribunal found the GP had published statements about clinical issues that were without basis, contrary to medical practice, or untrue or misleading. He had publicly disparaged medical practitioners, including psychiatrists, the hospital system and pharmaceuticals.

The Tribunal concluded the GP’s social media commentary had at least the potential to deter members of the public from obtaining vaccinations for themselves or their children, and from having chemotherapy. The comments had also encouraged the public to rely on unproven protocols for the prevention or treatment of COVID-19 and undermined their confidence in doctors and hospitals. The Tribunal noted that the coronavirus pandemic had increased the risk that vulnerable or unqualified persons would, out of fear or desperation, turn to ‘advice’ from unreliable sources.

The Tribunal concluded the GP did pose a serious risk to persons and it was necessary to take immediate action to protect public health or safety.

The GP was found to have given “misleading or otherwise unsatisfactory responses to the concerns raised about his social media commentary from the time the Medical Board gave him notice of proposed immediate action up until the time he gave evidence at the Tribunal”.

The Tribunal also considered it necessary for immediate action to be taken to reassure the public that the regulatory system was safe and adequate, to protect the public and the reputation of the medical profession.

Risk management

The Medical Board of Australia’s guidance on social media states the following:

  • While you may hold personal beliefs about the efficacy or safety of some public health initiatives, you must make sure that any comments you make on social media are consistent with the codes, standards and guidelines of your profession and do not contradict or counter public health campaigns or messaging. A registered health practitioner who makes comments, endorses or shares information which contradicts the best available scientific evidence may give legitimacy to false health-related information and breach their professional responsibilities. Practitioners need to take care when commenting, sharing or “liking” such content if not supported by best available scientific evidence.
  • As a registered health practitioner, your views on clinical issues are influential. Comments on social media that reflect or promote personal views about social and clinical issues might impact on someone’s sense of cultural safety or could lead to a patient feeling judged, intimidated or embarrassed.
  • You should communicate effectively, courteously, professionally and respectfully with, and about, other healthcare professionals.
  • The Medical Board may consider social media use in your private life (even where there is no identifiable link to you as a registered health practitioner) if it raises concerns about your fitness to hold registration.

 

Reference

  1. Ellis v Medical Board (Review & Regulation) [2020] VCAT 862 (10 August 2020).

 


Communication with Colleagues, Confidentiality and Privacy, Complaints and Adverse Events, Regulation and Legislation, Anaesthesia, Dermatology, Emergency Medicine, General Practice, Intensive Care Medicine, Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Ophthalmology, Pathology, Practice Manager Or Owner, Psychiatry, Radiology, Sports Medicine, Surgery, Physician, Geriatric Medicine, Cardiology, Plastic And Reconstructive Surgery, Radiation Oncology, Paediatrics, Independent Medical Assessor - IME
 

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