Social media in general practice

What is social media?

What is social media?

Social media refers to online platforms that facilitate the exchange of information through virtual social interactions. According to The Macquarie dictionary, it encompasses "online social networks used to disseminate information through online social interaction." This dynamic medium enablinges individuals to engage with others, access a wealth of information, and collaboratively share knowledge, experiences, and expertise across various topics of interest.

Advantages of social media

Social media's advantages for general practice arise from broad adoption, affordability, and outreach. With around 80% of Australians on social media and a quarter tracking businesses, it's a seamless channel for practices to connect with patients and peers.

  • Rural Connection: Reaches rural areas, fostering community engagement by sharing practice accomplishments.
  • Network Expansion: Fuels professional networks, allowing knowledge sharing, curriculum development, and direct engagement with decision-makers.
  • Platform's Significance: Platforms like RACGP's GPLearning create closed online spaces for collaborative efforts.
  • Enhanced Visibility: Cross-promoting content across multiple accounts boosts visibility.
  • Empowering GPs: Allows GPs to share health news and updates, express viewpoints, and influence policies.
  • Educational Role: Serves as an educational tool, informing the public on health topics and establishing trust as an evidence-based information source.

Disadvantages of social media

  • Social media fosters practitioner-patient communication, yet carries security, confidentiality, and reputation risks.
  • Distinction of Information: GPs and staff must differentiate between public-appropriate and confidential information.
  • Permanent Internet Data: Internet content is essentially irreversible; shared content can spread.
  • Caution in Sharing: Thoroughly assess information before sharing online.
  • Privacy Settings: Social media platforms' privacy settings are crucial for user control over networks and viewers.
  • Resource-Intensive: Active social media engagement demands dedicated staff with platform expertise for content monitoring and approval.
  • Managing Personal Use: Practices should consider staff's personal social media use during work hours, outlining terms and scope in the practice's social media policy.

Testimonials & AHPRA Guidelines:

The use of social media by GPs and general practice staff can be regarded as a form of advertising of a health service and is subject to the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency’s (AHPRA’s) Guidelines for advertising regulated health services. If anyone leaves a testimonial on your social media profile, it could breach the national law that imposes limits on advertising of health services delivered by registered health practitioners. APRHA requires practitioners to take reasonable steps to remove testimonials that advertise their health services (this may include comments about the practitioners themselves). However, ‘practitioners are not responsible for removing (or trying to have removed) unsolicited testimonials published on a website or in social media over which they do not have control’.5 

It is up to your practice to ensure that the settings of your social media websites adhere to AHPRA and MBA guidelines (e.g. disable reviews or comments functions). For all related codes and guidelines, refer to the codes, guidelines and policies outlined by the MBA.

AHPRA and the National Boards have published a self-assessment advertising tool and a testimonial tool to help health practitioners comply with the national law. 

The RACGP has also developed a factsheet, ‘Responding to online reviews’, that provides further information about using testimonials. 

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

This means that 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

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. You should consider developing 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 put together a social media policy template that you can adapt to 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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