#289 What you say or do in your private life may have ramifications for your professional life
28 April 2021
With the use of social media by medical professionals becoming more prevalent, it is more important to ensure that any views expressed or material shared on social media comply with the Medical Board of Australia’s (the Board) expectations of medical professionals, even if the material being shared is on a private page without reference to the practice of medicine.
An appeal to the Victorian Civil & Administrative Tribunal (the Tribunal) by a medical practitioner from the Board’s decision to take immediate action against him highlights the issues that can arise.
The Board decided to take immediate action to suspend a medical practitioner’s registration whilst it investigates the medical practitioner’s conduct. The medical practitioner, Dr E, came to the Board’s attention after receiving a notification from the practice manager of the clinic that Dr E was working at. This notification prompted an investigation of Dr E’s social media use. The Board were particularly concerned about 56 posts that Dr E had made on his personal and other Facebook pages that he administered, regarding a variety of topics including information and opinions about vaccines, chemotherapy, COVID-19 and other medical topics and opinions about certain religious and other groups.
The posts of concern included the following:
- re-posting an article titled “PROOF OF THE TOXICITY OF VACCINES!!!!” in which it was claimed that aluminium in vaccines was having, “crippling neurological consequences”
- re-posting of an article that referred, with implied approval, to a British physician, who linked the MMR vaccine to autism
- re-posting an article that asserted that the concept of compulsory vaccination had national socialist roots and posting a video linked to a conspiracy theorist
- posts concerning the apparent benefits of vitamin C in killing coronavirus.
Dr E asserted the posts did not reflect his personal views, they did not influence his medical practice and he had not refused to give a vaccination.
However, the question for the Tribunal was whether because of his conduct, Dr E posed a serious risk to persons; and whether the Tribunal reasonably believed that it was necessary to take immediate action to protect public health or safety or alternatively immediate action was otherwise in the public interest. The Tribunal found that various statements Dr E made to the Board and to the Tribunal indicated that he lacked insight and genuine remorse. The Tribunal rejected Dr E’s position that the posts were not his beliefs or that he was simply posting what was topical in the interests of promoting discussion.
The Tribunal found that Dr E posed a serious risk to the community based on his conduct in posting various material on social media about vaccines, chemotherapy and vitamin C and COVID-19, that had no proper clinical basis or that was contrary to accepted medical practice or that was otherwise untrue or misleading. They also found that Dr E, “contradicted or countered public health campaigns or messaging and so had given legitimacy to false health-related information.”
Relevantly, the Tribunal noted that, “the coronavirus pandemic has increased the risk that vulnerable or unqualified persons would, out of fear or desperation, turn to ‘advice’ from unreliable sources.” The fact that Dr E’s identity as a doctor may not have been known to his readers was irrelevant with the Tribunal noting that his comments would have been serious nonetheless.
The Tribunal agreed with the Board’s decision to suspend Dr E’s registration whilst the Board conducts an investigation.
AHPRA and the Board’s position statement on COVID-19 vaccination makes the expectations of medical practitioners with respect to sharing information on social media clear: “Any promotion of anti-vaccination statements or health advice which contradicts the best available scientific evidence or seeks to actively undermine the national immunisation campaign (including via social media) is not supported by National Boards and may be in breach of the codes of conduct and subject to investigation and possible regulatory action.”
Practitioners should also be aware of the Board’s guidance on social media which sets out the common pitfalls when using social media. In relation to public health messages, the Board’s guidance reiterates that practitioners need to take care that comments made on social media are consistent with the codes, standards and guidelines. This is also reiterated in the Good Medical Practice: A Code of Conduct for Doctors in Australia which states, “As a doctor, you need to consider the effect of your public comments and your actions outside work, including online, related to medical and clinical issues, and how they reflect on your role as a doctor and on the reputation of the profession.”
Social media can be a helpful tool to engage with a broad audience and to make health information more accessible. However, practitioners should familiarise themselves with the Board’s guidance on social media and avoid liking, sharing or engaging with content that may breach these guidelines.
We note that immediate action by the Board and the Tribunal’s decision was an interim measure taken to protect the public and that the decision to suspend Dr E’s registration may have been varied once Ahpra undertook a complete investigation of Dr E’s conduct.
Ellis v Medical Board of Australia (Review and Regulation)  VCAT 862
APHRA Position Statement - Registered health practitioners and students and COVID-19 vaccination 9 March 2021
Good Medical Practice: A Code of Conduct for Doctors in Australia, paragraph 2.2