Social media in general practice

Privacy requirements

Privacy requirements

Health practitioners and health organisations have a legal obligation to keep patient information confidential and protect the privacy of patients’ information. This obligation applies to the use of social media. The MBA’s Good medical practice: A code of conduct for doctors in Australia, section 3.4, states that good medical practice involves ‘Ensuring that your use of social media is consistent with your ethical and legal obligations to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.’3

When using social media, staff must not discuss patients or post pictures of procedures, case studies, patients, or sensitive material. Such material posted online may identify patients without their informed consent. 

For further guidance refer to the RACGP’s Privacy and managing health information  in general practice

Professional Online Conduct

Consider the below points in regard to Professional conduct whilst online:

  • Guidance from MBA: The MBA's "Good medical practice: A code of conduct for doctors in Australia," section 4.2.3, underscores the importance of maintaining professionalism and courtesy in online interactions.
  • Appropriate Content: If something isn't fit for public discussion, it's likely unsuitable for online publication. The 'elevator test' can help gauge content appropriateness; if it's unfit for strangers in an elevator, it's unwise for the internet.
  • Avoid Online Conflict: Refrain from participating in online arguments and offering negative responses to comments or feedback.
  • Mayo Clinic's 12-Word Rule: The Mayo Clinic's '12-word social media policy' advises healthcare professionals: don't lie, don't pry; don't cheat, can't delete; don't steal, don't reveal.

Using Disclaimers

If the views displayed on your personal social media page do not directly reflect those of the general practice, boards, or committees that you are a part of, insert a disclaimer that explains this. For example, ‘This account reflects my personal views and not the views of my employer, or any businesses, committees or boards with which I am involved.’ However, you should be aware that disclaimers may be of little practical use in the absence of supporting or reinforcing activities.

Security

Before participating in social media use, it is important for GPs and general practice staff to secure computers, digital technologies, and internet and Wi-Fi connections to ensure that your practice is protected against potential exposure to unauthorised access and theft or loss of personal information. 

For guidance and a framework to evaluate risks, and solutions to improve competency and capacity in computer and information security, refer to the RACGP’s Information security in general practice.

 Practice policy

If your practice intends to use social media, you must ensure that you have a social media policy in place and that staff comply with the policy and its relevant content. Develop a practice code of conduct for the use of social media that reflects the MBA’s Good medical practice: A code of conduct for doctors in Australia. The RACGP has a social media policy template that you can adapt to your practice. 

Staff Responsibilities and Training for social media

  • Assign a staff member to manage online content; outline this role in your practice's social media policy.
  • Educate your practice team on social media, covering policy awareness and usage.
  • Social Media Policy Training:
  • Define your practice's social media policy and its rationale.
  • Specify who can create new social media channels and requisite approvals.
  • Authorize individuals in the practice to post on social media.
  • Outline professional conduct on social media, considering reputation protection.
  • Address legal obligations, including safeguarding confidential patient data.
  • Detail consequences of policy violations (document in the policy).

Training for Using social media

  • Introduce social media basics, its functions, and advantages.
  • Educate on safeguarding personal and professional data online (security settings).
  • Teach message crafting for desired outcomes (recruitment, marketing, information sharing).
  • Highlight social media etiquette: build relationships, engage, and converse.
  • Define expectations for practice-related posts (tone, topics, response times).
  • Emphasize the practice's brand, confidentiality, fact-checking, spelling, grammar, and engaging content.
  • Provide guidance on managing unfavourable posts (refer to RACGP's 'Responding to online reviews').

Professional Risks for GPs and social media:

  • Educate GPs about potential risks in personal social media use.
  • Advise against activities harming their professional reputation, such as extremist forums, abusive posts, patient connections on personal accounts, or interacting with patients on dating sites.
  • Recognize legal consequences, like defamation actions or disciplinary complaints

Is social media right for your practice?

Consider the following when deciding whether to use social media in your practice.
Do you have the staff resources to implement and manage your social media profiles?
What policies and procedures will you need to create to use social media safely and efficiently?
Will this be of benefit to your patients?
Do you have the time to train staff?
What social media platforms will allow you to collaborate with the most relevant groups or people?
Who is your target audience?
Will you be able to connect with your target audience to increase your business profile?

  1. Macquarie dictionary. 6th edn. Sydney: Macquarie Dictionary Publishers, 2013; p. 1390. Sensis. The must-know stats from the 2018 Yellow Social Media Report. [Accessed 8 August 2018]. Medical Board of Australia. Good medical practice: A code of conduct for doctors in Australia. Melbourne: MBA, 2014. [Accessed 28 July 2015]. Leibtag A. A 12-word social media policy. Mayo Clinic Social Media Network. 5 April 2012. [Accessed 3 April 2019]. Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency, National Boards. Guidelines for advertising regulated health services. Melbourne: AHPRA, 2014. [Accessed 21 May 2015]. Social Media News. Social Media Statistics Australia – January 2018. [Accessed 8 August 2018].
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