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Social media: The perils of posting while at work

Ruanne Brell, BA LLB (Hons), Senior Legal Adviser, Advocacy, Education and Research, Avant

Friday, 3 May 2024

Apps on phone screen

Originally published May 2018, last updated May 2024

You’re an RMO working in a public hospital. You and your peers are in your scrubs waiting for the surgeon to arrive before you go into the operating theatre.

One of your colleagues decides to get out their mobile phone and send a photo using Instagram of the team waiting around, with the caption “Just another day in surgery, waiting for the surgeon”.

The Instagram message is sent to a few of their colleagues. The message quickly does the rounds and the surgeon also ends up receiving it . Despite the Instagram message being sent innocuously by your colleague who is merely eager to get into the operating theatre, the surgeon reacts angrily as they believe it’s a jibe at them.

This scenario raises questions that are common across all social media platforms about what is appropriate while at work. So before you post, it’s important make sure you aren’t breaching any professional, legal or workplace obligations, or publishing something you will later regret.

What are your obligations?

As a doctor, you’re required to meet certain standards of professional behaviour, which are outlined in the Medical Board of Australia. Good medical practice: a code of conduct for doctors in Australia. The guidance, Social media: How to meet your obligations under the National Law, released by Ahpra and the National Boards confirms the professional obligations in the Code of Conduct that apply when using social media.

It’s more than likely that the hospital you work at, or the health service running it, also has a social media policy. It’s important you familiarise yourself with and abide by this, particularly concerning the use of patient information. Generally, these policies prohibit using social media in a way that would breach a law – for example, privacy, defamation, confidentiality, discrimination or harassment, intellectual property, competition and consumer laws – or that would bring your employer into disrepute. Hospital policy may also prevent you from commenting on workplace matters.

If you’re intending to use any patient information, even de-identified, you should be aware that such patient information may be the property of the hospital and should not be used without the entity’s consent. As well as requiring relevant patient consent.

Once it’s out there, there’s no taking it back

Your social media profile will often connect your professional and private personas, so your private actions on social media may very well reflect on your public persona. When using any social media platform, you should assume that at some stage a patient or colleague may be able to see your activity – consider whether you are comfortable with that before posting.

Make sure you know the identity of people who you accept connection requests from, and avoid accepting any from patients. On those platforms where it may be appropriate to be followed by or connected with patients and the general public, ensure you maintain professional boundaries at all times.

Key tips

  • Be aware of your professional, legal and employment obligations when using social media.
  • Understand the privacy settings of all your social media accounts and review these regularly.
  • Obtain and document patient consent to use any patient information, even if it is de-identified.
  • If in doubt, don’t post.

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This publication is not comprehensive and does not constitute legal or medical advice. You should seek legal or other professional advice before relying on any content, and practise proper clinical decision making with regard to the individual circumstances. Persons implementing any recommendations contained in this publication must exercise their own independent skill or judgement or seek appropriate professional advice relevant to their own particular practice. Compliance with any recommendations will not in any way guarantee discharge of the duty of care owed to patients and others coming into contact with the health professional or practice. Avant is not responsible to you or anyone else for any loss suffered in connection with the use of this information. Information is only current at the date initially published.

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