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An increasing number of optometrists are using the latest trends in social media to increase patient satisfaction and loyalty and attract new patients to their practice. The benefits are appealing but could your good intentions come back to haunt you?

Technology and the law

Last year, several medical professionals were cautioned by the New South Wales Medical Board for disclosing patient details on their private Facebook pages that were read by those patients. This demonstrates that there are no guarantees of privacy online and health professionals, including optometrists, need to be particularly aware of the legal and ethical implications of social media.

Bruce Arnold, lecturer at the University of Canberra Faculty of Law, stresses the importance of understanding the law surrounding social media. He specialises in intellectual property, privacy and digital identity law.

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‘Before you put any personal information about yourself or other people on the web, on paper or on other media, ask whether you are authorised and whether the information could be misused,’ Arnold said. ‘People come to you as an optometrist, not as a publisher.’

Traditional laws covering areas such as defamation, copyright and intellectual property rights will usually apply to the online context. ‘People sometimes believe that cyberspace is a land where no law applies, no-one ever gets hurt and no-one has to take responsibility,’ Arnold said.

‘When you go online, remember that you are covered by Australian law. There is now a large number of cases where individuals, businesses and governments have successfully taken legal action for online activity.’

Optometrists may also be subject to additional legislation beyond that imposed on the general public, he explains. ‘Patient and partner information is often covered by confidentiality law, which sits alongside privacy law but may have greater penalties where there has been abuse or negligence on the part of a health service practitioner or a person for whom the practitioner is responsible.’

He cautions that Australian courts have awarded damages to patients whose information was leaked or ‘lost’ by health service providers, but a legal dispute can be more than just a costly hassle. ‘You may well shrug off financial penalties but your good name and the good will of your business are priceless,’ he said.

Social media in your practice

Despite the law naturally being of concern to optometrists, not using social media is never an option for any business that wants to thrive in our modern age, according to the director of Strongman Digital Media, Tomer Garzberg.

‘It is like saying you won’t use a mobile phone because you might say something regrettable and be overheard by a member of the public,’ he said. ‘Social media is a communication device that requires strategic use planning and proper use guidelines to be conveyed to all staff affiliated with your organisation.’

According to market research company Nielsen, over 80 per cent of the Australian population has internet access and 64 per cent of our working population are active Facebook users. These statistics quickly highlight why social media is an integral part of successful business marketing campaigns.

‘Use social media’s two billion users to your advantage and get your business going viral, but expect everything you say online, even if deleted, to be etched in history,’ Garzberg said.

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One of the most important things to remember when integrating social media into your practice is to not underestimate its power. If a current or potential patient searches for your business online, chances are your Facebook or Twitter page will appear above your official website in search results, explains Social Media News chief editor, David Cowling.

‘Search engines like Google, Bing and Yahoo give high priority to indexing social networking websites; anything you give these sites—information, contact details, photos et cetera—all of these will most probably be indexed into the search engines and become publicly viewable information.’

‘Whatever you put up, make it look accurate and professional,’ he said.

Business and leisure

It is perfectly acceptable for you to want to have your own personal Facebook or Twitter page to stay up to date with your friends and family—away from your professional responsibilities.

‘It is quite easy to have your personal life and professional life blended together online, so you have to make a conscious effort to ensure both elements are separated,’ Garzberg said.

The issue of online privacy has been a hot topic for the past couple of years and social media sites have given in to demand for more flexible privacy settings that allow professionals, such as optometrists, to easily segregate their professional and business lives.

‘On the three largest networks: Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, it is possible [to separate personal and professional profiles]. On Facebook, you’ll need a personal account to start a Facebook Page for your organisation; however, all of your interactions when using that page have no connection to your personal account.

On LinkedIn, your profile focuses on your professional life but there is a ‘companies’ feature you can set up that works in a way similar to Facebook Pages. On Twitter, it’s easy, just get one account for you and a separate account for your professional life.’

Garzberg warns that, by default, anything and everything you do on a social network remains the property of those networks. ‘Google caches this data and anything you have ever contributed actually becomes Googleable long after you have said it. Facebook and LinkedIn have settings where you can hide your activity, but Tweets go live on Google within three seconds,’ he said.

If you have to think twice about putting up a photo of you reliving your youth at a university reunion, don’t post it; and this should apply to everything you put online. Once you post a photo or comment online, you have lost control of where it will go and who will see it. Although this is also true of verbal or hard copy comments we make, online posts can go a lot more places and much faster.

‘You have to be prepared to be accountable for anything you say and the keywords you use. If you are talking about a questionable topic that is part of current affairs, you become Googleable for any keywords you use, negative or not. This could have an adverse effect on your authority, especially in an age when every citizen is empowered to do their own diligence using the web,’ Garzberg said.

This article was first published in Practice, August 2011.

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