Most of us will have received ‘invitation to join’ emails from
friends’ or colleagues’ social media sites, but sometimes these innocuous
invitations can have serious consequences.
While users must grant
permission before social media sites can access personal contact lists, the
potential consequences of agreeing may not always be apparent at the time of
signing up to the site.
Breach of confidentiality
A recent case
involved a doctor who received a patient complaint alleging breach of
confidentiality. The patient issued the complaint after receiving invitations to
join an online professional network and connect with the doctor’s staff.
Although the invitations appeared to have been sent by the practice’s staff,
the specialist could not understand how this had occurred as he had not sent any
invitations. The doctor sought professional assistance to respond to the
It was found that the invitations had inadvertently been sent
to patients after the social media site was accidentally granted access to the
doctor’s staff contact list, and then sent generic invitation emails to the
stored emailed addresses.
Unfortunately, this story is not unique and
potentially all users of this social media site could be vulnerable. Fixing the
problem can also be a difficult and time-consuming process, depending on the
Online professional networks can be a very valuable tool,
connecting practitioners with similar interests. However, their use is not
without risk. In sensitive contexts such as medical practices, caution must be
exercised by practitioners and staff before granting permission for sites to
access address books or personal information to ensure that confidential patient
contact details are not being used or promoted. Check the terms and conditions
of sites before signing up, including whether the site will access the email
addresses in your database.
Know your obligations
also be aware of their responsibilities under the new social media guidance and revised ‘Guidelines for
advertising regulated health services’ released by Australian Health
Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) in March 2014, in order to successfully
navigate their way through social media in both a professional and personal
The Medical Board of Australia updated the advertising guidelines on 20 May 2014, to
provide clearer rules on the use of online testimonials to advertise regulated
health services in response to confusion from doctors struggling to determine
Advertising guidelines: testimonial key points
- Testimonials are prohibited in advertising regulated health services
including on doctor’s own Facebook pages or websites, in print, radio or
television advertisements, and on social media.
- Doctors are not
responsible for the removal of unsolicited testimonials published on a website
or in social media over which they do not have control.
- Patients can
still share views through consumer and patients’ information sharing websites
that invite public feedback/reviews about experience of a practitioner,
business, and/or service.
Doctors should also be mindful that many
employers and professional groups have also developed their own policies
specifying employee or contractual obligations in relation to use of social
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Avant’s news article on the advertising guidelines
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