When nurses use social media, whether at home or at work, they need to be aware of their professional obligations. Their online behaviour is governed by the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Australia’s codes of conduct and ethics, as well as the Australian Health Professional Regulation Agency’s social media policy.
A recent disciplinary hearing highlights what can happen when social media posts bring the profession and the individual into disrepute. While it relates to the actions of a medical practitioner, it is also applicable to nurses.
The case concerns a medical practitioner, Dr L, who made inappropriate statements and comments in posts on overseas online forums and chat sites, starting in 2016.
Dr L was readily, from his own words and photographs, identifiable as an Australian medical practitioner. His online comments included the following:
"I beg to differ. This kind will NEVER learn. She needs to be abandoned in India and repeatedly raped...”
“I am a medical practitioner. I also have a foul mouth and call a spade a spade.”
“I can just as easily condemn your mother for a whore (if the situation warranted it) as I can save your life...”
“Nah, I’m a lesbian in mind only ... I just need some alcohol.”
“With her suicide, nothing of value would be lost.”
In 2017, referring to an article about an Egyptian lawyer who was sentenced to three years in prison for saying that women who wear ripped jeans should be raped as punishment, Dr L posted:
"I’m surprised they didn’t give him a medal instead.”
In 2018 Dr L described himself as follows:
"A mongrel doctor who claims to know all manner of shit on earth. He works and resides in Australia ... There’s some tiagong [sic] that he was forced into the marriage because his wife had threatened to report him to police for raping her, after he spiked her curry then upped her after their graduation prom night.”
And later he posted:
"If my marriage fell apart, it would not end in divorce. It would end in murder.”
At the time of the disciplinary hearing in 2019, Dr L was aged 31. He submitted in mitigation that none of his sociopolitical and other personal views coloured or influenced his medical practice. Further, Dr L submitted that he did not fully appreciate that posting comments on a Singaporean online forum would have consequences on his practice of medicine in Australia and that they were made, “not in the practice of medicine” and after hours.
The tribunal found that Dr L understood that the posts could be perceived as inflammatory, misogynistic and racist in tone and that the posts were clearly associated to him. It was clear from the posts and the photographs he posted that he was a registered medical practitioner from Australia.
The tribunal also found that the posts conveyed socially unacceptable and extreme sentiments that were disrespectful of women and commented upon violence towards or sexual abuse of women:
"Some of the online posts might reasonably be interpreted as being racially discriminatory contrary to acceptable social norms in Australia. All of the online posts had the potential to incite radical views, antagonise the reader, and they had the potential to cause harm to the public. In addition, some of the posts involved the use of vulgar language, expressions of committing violence and crime, all of which are inconsistent with the good repute of medical practitioners and the relationship of trust between medical practitioners and patients who are, of course, members of the public.”
The tribunal found in relation to penalty that:
"The conduct is serious and does amount to professional misconduct. Accordingly, a strong sanction is necessary in order to send a message to both the respondent [Dr L] and doctors broadly that they need to be circumspect and they must abide by the professional behaviours required of them in the code and the social media policy.”
The tribunal stated that the conduct amounted to professional misconduct pursuant to the National Law. Insofar as penalty was concerned, the tribunal ordered:
(a) that Dr L be reprimanded
(b) that he be suspended from practising for six weeks
(c) that he be required to undertake education on ethical behaviour and communications, particularly in the use of social media.
This case demonstrates that even if posting on overseas forums, when physically overseas, when not in the course of employment and when on your own computer, it can still amount to professional misconduct.
These clearly offensive posts fall well below the standard set by both the profession and the public of what they expect of a health professional.
Remember, what you post on social media, no matter where, is literally broadcast to the world at large.
Scott Trueman is a senior lecturer in the School of Health at the University of New England.Do you have an idea for a story?
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