Earlier this week Croakey published an open letter from Victorian surgeon Jill Tomlinson to the Medical Board of Australia expressing concern about a “lack of understanding of social media communication” shown in its proposed guidelines for advertising regulated health services that will take effect next month.
Of particular concern, she said, was that medical practitioners will need to ask any individual who writes online about their clinical care, or any website that hosts the online comments, to remove the comments.
Chair of the Medical Board of Australia Dr Joanna Flynn responds to the letter below.
Dr Joanna Flynn writes:
While the Medical Board of Australia’s new social media policy has prompted some lively debate, the reality is that it doesn’t set new requirements.
Social media changes the means of communication, not the Board’s expectations of medical practitioners.
In other words, the social media policy clarifies that practitioners’ existing regulatory responsibilities apply to social media as they do to traditional forms of communication. They are not new expectations. They are existing expectations that apply to new media.
The ban on testimonials has triggered a lot of social media debate. In fact, the ban comes from the Health Practitioner Regulation National Law (section 133), which specifically rules out testimonials. The Board didn’t make this up. It developed guidance (through the Advertising guidelines) to help make practitioners’ legal responsibilities clear. The social media policy applies these same responsibilities to new media.
Our legislators shaped the National Law, including the ban on testimonials, based on history, traditional forms of media and past trends in complaints. Whether it is still appropriate in the 21st century, when there are a whole series of conversations taking place online, with different levels of control over who says what about who, is another question altogether. If there is appetite for change, this debate should be channeled into the forthcoming three year review of the National Registration and Accreditation Scheme, which we expect will include opportunities for feedback about aspects of the Law. Practitioners active in social media, who are concerned about the current legal framework, should seek out opportunities to have their say.
In the meantime, as a regulator, the core role of the board is to protect the public. Our focus is squarely on managing risk to patients.
Through the social media policy, the Board requires practitioners who are involved in social media to make sure they meet their regulatory responsibilities. These already exist in the Board’s code of conduct (Good medical practice), the advertising guidelines and now the social media policy.
Also, the policy doesn’t change the threshold for investigating concerns about a doctor’s conduct. It simply aims to make it clear what that threshold is.
The Board received nearly 5,000 complaints about medical practitioners last year. As a regulator, it will continue to focus on public safety and managing risk to patients. Part of the Board’s job is to make sure the standards it expects practitioners to meet are clear. In turn, the Board expects practitioners to take reasonable steps to meet them.
Social media will continue to evolve. The Board will keep thinking about both the opportunities and challenges of social media. We will continue to consult with the profession and the community as we grapple with these issues and look to international experience. The challenges of social media for regulation of health practitioners are not unique to Australia.