Health professional conduct on social media

Social media is a public forum which is quick to access and can easily be misread or used in an unprofessional manner. Health practitioners need to be acutely aware of their professional responsibilities, how inappropriate use of social media activity can lead to complaints, and how these complaints are managed by NSW Health Professional Councils.

Why is social media a risky platform for health practitioners?

Personal activity on social media is still in the public domain, even private social media accounts. Once you post or share a story, photo, video, or simply ‘like’ another’s post, this activity is recorded publicly and is out of your control. Content can quickly be copied, reposted, and presented to a broader audience in any format, without your knowledge or consent. It is effortless to engage on social media. One click, and immediately your opinions are known by others.

Practitioners need to be aware that their personal behaviour online can lead to complaints of unprofessional conduct or professional misconduct. For example, you may share information with others for professional reasons. You may even clarify the purpose of the post with text such as, ‘this is an interesting perspective’, but others may misconstrue this post as an endorsement of that information, just because you shared it.

For health practitioners, if the information that is shared or posted on social media conflicts with professional codes of conduct or obligations, there is a risk that a complaint may be made. The NSW Health Professional Councils have seen a recent upturn in complaints about health practitioners on social media commenting about COVID-19. This highlights the risks and consequences for practitioners who are not aware of, or do not adhere to their professional responsibilities.

What is inappropriate conduct on social media for health practitioners?

The pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic, mandated vaccinations and issues related to testing have contributed to increased activity on social media by health practitioners. In turn, this has led to an increase in complaints.

Examples of inappropriate social media activity that may result in complaints about practitioners and action by Council include:

  • Activity that contradicts public health orders, public health messaging or reputable scientific evidence including:
    • Making comments, endorsing or sharing information, posting ‘likes’ or ‘dislikes’ with or without additional comments
    • Being photographed or videoed engaging in activities or events that are in conflict with professional responsibilities.
  • Providing health advice on areas outside the scope of the profession or individual professional competencies.
  • Commenting on a post made by a patient that could be seen as breaching the patient’s privacy.
  • Unprofessional, disrespectful or threatening communications with or about patients and/or other practitioners, including through closed group social media channels.

How are complaints about health practitioners handled?

The NSW Health Professional Councils are responsible for protecting public safety which involves receiving complaints about health practitioners, assessing the complaints in consultation with the HCCC, and managing complaints. Regulatory action taken by Councils may include conducting hearings, placing conditions on practice and, in serious matters, registration may be suspended.

Health practitioners have  professional responsibilities

The public has confidence in health practitioners and places value on their words and views. This trust is underpinned by an understanding that health practitioners are fit and proper individuals who adhere to established professional standards and a code of conduct. Practice is also based on reputable scientific evidence.

Any intentional or unintentional activity on social media that conflicts with the professional standards, code of conduct, or reputable evidence-based information, or public health orders, or public health messaging, is deemed inappropriate. This poses a risk to the public.

When registered health practitioners are active on social media, they must continue to comply with the National Law and are bound by the National Boards’ code of conduct, the same as during face to face engagement.

Health practitioners can meet professional responsibilities by:

  • Complying with professional obligations as defined in the National Boards’ Code of conduct
  • Complying with confidentiality and privacy requirements
  • Maintaining professional boundaries with patients, colleagues and employers
  • Communicating professionally and respectfully with or about patients, colleagues and employers
  • Ensuring any advertising or information presented is not false, misleading or deceptive
  • Only supporting information that is consistent with public health messaging and. reputable scientific evidence.

Personal vs Professional social media activity. What’s the difference?

When registered health practitioners are active on social media, they are still recognised as a registered practitioner and not a private individual, because social media is public platform.

Do you need further details?

Find more information on social media guidelines, your professional obligations under the National Law and the code of conduct for registered practitioners at these links or on the Ahpra website.