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Common sense prevails on social media testimonials

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Doctors will no longer be held responsible for unsolicited testimonials on social media sites out of their control after the Medical Board of Australia bowed to pressure from the AMA, medical practitioners and the media.

In a move widely welcomed as a victory for common sense, the Board last week announced that Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency advertising guidelines will be changed to make it clear that medical practitioners will not be held liable for removing unsolicited testimonials “on a website or in social media over which they do not have control”.

The decision came two days after AMA President Dr Steve Hambleton raised the issue directly with the Medical Board Chair Dr Joanna Flynn.

Dr Hambleton pointed out to Dr Flynn that the advice the Board provided to practitioners through its Frequently Asked Questions document was sharply at odds with the requirements as set out in section 6.2.3 of the Guidelines for advertising regulated health services under the Health Practitioner Regulation National Law.

According to the guidelines, “a practitioner must take reasonable steps to have any testimonials associated with their health service or business removed when they become aware of them, even if they appear on a website that is not directly associated and/or under the direct control or administration of that health practitioner”.

But in its Frequently Asked Questions advice, the Board said that: “Practitioners are not responsible for removing (or trying to have removed) unsolicited testimonials published on a website or in social media over which they do not have control”.

Dr Hambleton told Dr Flynn that it was “unacceptable” for there to be such contradictory information, and called for the immediate withdrawal and revision of the guidelines.

The AMA President said the FAQ advice was the most sensible approach to the issue, and the AMA accepted the requirement that doctors should not share or re-tweet patient comments on social media that promoted their practice or service.

The Medical Board had also come under pressure from a coalition of doctors, led by Melbourne reconstructive surgeon Dr Jill Tomlinson and backed by the Medical Observer, to change the guidelines.

Dr Tomlinson led the #AHPRAaction campaign, with gathered more than 750 signatures for a petition which warned the guidelines placed “an unreasonably onerous burden on all health practitioners…[and] demonstrate a lack of understanding of the use of social media in Australia in 2014. They restrict consumers’ rights to express their positive experiences of health care”.

In its announcement, the Medical Board said that it did not have the authority to change the advertising requirements of the National Law, but added that the section 6.2.3 of the guidelines would be altered.

“Until this change is made, AHPRA will be applying the guidelines consistent with information in the FAQs,” the Board said.

“This means practitioners are not responsible for removing (or trying to have removed) unsolicited testimonials published on a website or in social media over which they do not have control.

“The Medical Board of Australia will now work with AHPRA and the other 13 National Boards to progress this change.”

The Medical Board announcement can be viewed at: http://www.medicalboard.gov.au/News/2014-03-26-mba-to-change-advertising-guidelines.aspx

Adrian Rollins