It is understandable to think that a medical practitioner’s private life should be kept separate from their professional life.  Even more so, where that private conduct occurs on social media on an overseas platform.

Such beliefs cannot be further from the truth as a very recent Medical Tribunal decision highlights.

In the case of The Medical Board of Australia v Christopher Kwan Chen Lee [2019] TASHPT 3, the Health Practitioners Tribunal in Tasmania found Dr Lee guilty of professional misconduct and issued a reprimand and suspension from medical practice for six weeks. Dr Lee was also required to undertake education on ethical behaviour and communication.

The conduct: inappropriate online comments 
While Dr Lee was employed as a registrar at major teaching hospitals in Tasmania and Victoria, he made inappropriate statements and comments on online internet forums and chat sites, some of which were based in Singapore.  The posts were extremely offensive, socially unacceptable, and particularly disrespectful of women and commented on violence towards, or sexual abuse of women.  Dr Lee was readily identifiable from his own words and photographs on the chat site as an Australian medical practitioner.

At the time Dr Lee posted the online comments he says he did not appreciate that posting comments on a Singaporean online forum would have consequences on his practice of medicine in Australia.

Even though Dr Lee’s personal opinions were quite offensive and socially unacceptable, he says that he never allowed his personal views to influence his medical practice and in fact he was supported in that regard by his clinical supervisors.

The Tribunal’s findings 
The Tribunal found that, as Dr Lee was a registered medical practitioner at the time that he posted the comments online, the Medical Board’s Code of Conduct was relevant as was the National Board’s social media policy published in March 2014.  The social media policy states:

‘Whether an online activity is able to be viewed by the public or is limited to a specific group of people, health professionals need to maintain professional standards and be aware of the implications of their actions, as in all professional circumstances.  Health professionals need to be aware that information circulated on social media may end up in the public domain, and remain there, irrespective of the intent at the time of posting’.  

When all Dr Lee’s posts were taken together, the Tribunal found his conduct constituted several instances of unprofessional conduct which together amounted to professional misconduct.

Even though the online posts were not made in the course of practising medicine and were posted after-hours, there was a clear nexus between the posts and the respondent’s profession as he identified himself as a medical practitioner and his assertion that he is a medical practitioner was supported by several photographs that he posted on the online forum.

The Tribunal found that it was clearly arguable that the nature of the posts and the number of them might demonstrate conduct that was inconsistent with Dr Lee being a fit and proper person to hold registration in the medical profession.

While Dr Lee was contrite and fully cooperated with the investigation, he received a formal reprimand (which is recorded on the register of medical practitioners) and a 6 week suspension.  A condition was also imposed on his registration requiring him to undertake education on ethical behaviour and communications, particularly in the use of social media.

Maintaining professional standards online 
The seriousness of Dr Lee’s conduct cannot be understated and serves as a clear warning to all practitioners about conduct in private life and how it can have ramifications on their ability to practise medicine.

For all the benefits that social media brings, it is also fraught with danger when used inappropriately. It should be assumed that any post on social media, whether intended for private or public display, might be disseminated more widely than intended. Practitioners need to think very carefully about a post and its potential consequences before it is posted.

Practitioners should make every effort to maintain separate social media accounts for their private life and professional life. The ease in which the boundaries between those accounts can become blurred are evident, for example, patients seeking to become online “friends”. Any such request should be declined.

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