Critics condemn proposals to restrict use of social media among health staff

BMJ 2012; 345 doi: (Published 17 September 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e6240
  1. Melissa Sweet
  1. 1Sydney

Proponents of the use of social media in healthcare are angry about efforts by regulatory bodies in Australia to develop a social media policy for health professionals.

A preliminary consultation paper on a draft policy was leaked recently ahead of its planned release for public consultation later this year,1 provoking a storm of commentary on health professionals’ blogs and on Twitter.

Doctors and other health professionals say that the draft policy risks putting up barriers to the use of social media to improve healthcare and services and to promote public health.

The 14 national boards that regulate the health professions asked for preliminary feedback on the policy to be made to the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency by 14 September. The issue is to be considered as part of an upcoming review of the boards’ codes and guidelines for health professionals.

The document says that the growing use of social media for commercial and business related information and advertising has prompted the need for clarity and that healthcare practitioners and professional associations had sought guidance from the national boards.

It says that some use of social media by registered health practitioners may contravene the code of conduct, the Advertising Guidelines, and other relevant legislation and notes that the use of testimonials in advertising is prohibited.

It says that registered healthcare practitioners “should be aware of the risks and implications of using social media.”

Jill Tomlinson, a surgeon in Victoria who has been involved in healthcare social media for eight years and is a graduate of the Webicina SocialMEDia course (, said that the paper requires major revision.

She was particularly concerned by the suggestion that advertising regulations prohibiting the use of testimonials could be breached if any healthcare professional received a “like” comment from other users on Facebook.

“If a ‘follow’ or ‘retweet’ on Twitter is also considered a testimonial or endorsement, that would mean that all practitioners will have to shut down their Twitter accounts and Facebook pages,” she said.

Daryl Sadgrove, chief executive officer of the Australasian College for Health Service Management, said that the paper did not reflect his organisation’s position.

“Although we absolutely believe that patient confidentiality, respect for fellow health workers, and prudence in sharing commercial in confidence information should always be maintained (as it is currently), we recognise the incredible potential of social media to contribute to a transformed health system which values openness, transparency, and patient, practitioner, and community engagement,” he said.

Tim Senior, a GP who works in Aboriginal health in Sydney, said that social media were a powerful tool for health professionals wanting to advocate for improvements in services for their communities.

He said, “The potential that social media have for hearing the perspective of our patients has enormous potential to improve our practice, and it would be a shame to miss out on this because of fear of making a wrong step.”

Edwin Kruys, a GP in Geraldton in Western Australia, said that the document was not in the interests of patients, as it would make it more difficult for health professionals and practices to be in contact with patients and receive feedback.

A Melbourne GP, Charles Alpren, said, “My practice is a great deal richer for my use of social media. I have learned huge amounts from the people I follow on Twitter—people with huge expertise in fields I am interested in who I could never have hoped to connect with in another way. And my Facebook page allows me to extend the service I provide to outside my consultation room.”

Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency welcomed the big response to the document. “We have been keeping an eye on the discussions and will take into account the feedback received to date for the next version of the draft, which will be released for public consultation in a couple of months,” she said.

The agency supports the 14 national boards that are responsible for regulating health professions.


Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e6240


  • Competing interests: MS recently participated in an Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency debate in Melbourne on open disclosure of health professionals’ disciplinary transgressions. It paid her travel and accommodation expenses.