Navigating the Blur: Free Speech and Social Media Perils for Dentists

With social media being an integral part of our professional and personal lives, the dental profession finds itself navigating the blurry boundary between freedom of speech and meeting its professional obligations. By Enore Panetta (Director, Panetta McGrath Lawyers)


Ahpra and the Dental Board have established guidelines for online behaviour of dentists, aiming to maintain ethical standards and safeguard public trust.
The guidance states:

Public Comment and trust in the profession:

Ahpra and the National Boards recognise the freedom of expression for practitioners and their right to communicate, including advocating for causes via social media, provided their activities do not involve the abuse or discrimination of others, or present a risk to the public.

While everyone has the right to lodge a notification if they are concerned about the social media use of a registered practitioner, there are only limited grounds on which Ahpra and the National Boards would investigate or consider taking action.

Registered practitioners will not be investigated purely for holding or expressing their views on social media. Regulatory action may be considered if the way a practitioner expresses their views presents a risk to public safety; provides false or misleading information or breaches privacy or confidentiality; risks the public’s confidence in their profession; or requires action to maintain professional standards. The guidance goes on to state:

Practitioners who use social media are expected to:

  • comply with confidentiality and privacy obligations
  • comply with professional obligations as defined in the relevant Board’s Code of conduct
  • maintain professional boundaries
  • communicate professionally and respectfully with or about patients, colleagues and employers, and
  • not present information that is false, misleading or deceptive.

Examples of social media activities that are likely to warrant investigation include:

Political content that calls for inappropriate action.

A practitioner posts to social media a condemnation of citizens of a country, or a cultural or religious identity. The post includes a call to action, such as signing a petition or attending a protest march, specifically aimed at denigrating or discriminating against a population or group. Depending on the specific circumstances or events being reported, this is potentially discriminatory and could be a breach of the code of conduct and social media guidance.

Political content that is deliberately biased and not factual.

A practitioner shares intentionally misleading content about citizens of a country, or a cultural or religious identity that is biased, inflammatory and has the potential to incite racial hatred, intolerance. The content is intended to influence and persuade and is not factual.

A member of the public makes a complaint that the content is derogatory, slanderous or offensive, and that it is not factual. Depending on the specific circumstances or events being reported, the content may be a breach of the practitioner’s code of conduct and social media guidance, and a review of the matter reveals that the non-factual material is a repost of private political sentiment that is posted to gain traction against a target group.

In both examples, the National Board might take action in response to the notification where the post:

  • presents a risk(s) to public safety
  • risk(s) the public’s confidence in the profession
  • require(s) action to maintain professional standards

Dentists can adopt several strategies to help them align with the Ahpra and Dental Board guidelines while safeguarding their right to free speech. First, a clear understanding of the guidelines is important and that understanding must be refreshed, including to keep up with updates to the guidelines.

Moreover, dentists might also consider establishing separate personal and professional accounts on social media platforms. This delineation may help maintain a level of privacy while ensuring that the professional persona aligns with the established guidelines. However, it must be appreciated that the content and conduct of personal accounts may also impact on a dentist's professionalism and patient trust.

Dentists must take care in the online world, a world that never digitally forgets a post, comment or like and for which the author is always identifiable.  An online world with the trappings of informality, familiarity and short-hand expressions inherently presents greater risk of miscommunication and misinterpretation and comments being taken out of context under a regulatory microscope – and if subjected to a regulatory assessment the subjective intent of the dentist is not determinative or even relevant, it is the objective interpretation of the actions and words that will matter and their impact on professionalism and patient trust.

A vigilant and measured approach to online communication is obviously prudent. Dentists must be conscious of the potential impact their words may have on patients, colleagues, and the broader community. Dentists engaging in respectful and constructive dialogue, while refraining from offensive or inflammatory language, helps foster an online environment that reflects positively on themselves, personally, and on the dental profession.

Regular self-audits of online content is also recommended. Periodically reviewing posts, comments, and shared content can help dentists minimise the risk of being subject to complaints by identifying and rectifying any potential breaches of guidelines. A proactive and diligent approach in this regard demonstrates a commitment to professional standards and responsible online conduct.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general overview and guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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