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Social media: navigating privacy pitfalls

Michael Swan, BN, LLB, Senior Solicitor, Avant Law, NSW

Alison Fitzgerald, Avant Senior Solicitor and SA/WA Head of Practice

Sunday, 16 November 2014


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 complaint.

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 site.

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

Doctors should 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 capacity.

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 their obligations.

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 media.

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Read Avant’s news article on the advertising guidelines

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