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As often happens a number of discussions and research came together to prompt me to consider a particular matter.

I had been given a copy of the Courier Mail article of Sunday January 28th headlined “Anti-vax nurses face music- Disciplinary action possible after Facebook posts”.   I was surprised to read that 18 nurses were facing possible disciplinary actions for allegedly posting anti-vaccination comments.

This article came into my hands a couple of weeks after observing a fairly robust discussion between two friends.  One claimed to have read a very compelling article against vaccination, the other demanded to know just what facts had been used to support the articles’ contentions.  This second person was able to knowledgably discuss published anti-vaccination arguments and cite facts that claimed to discount those arguments.   The conversation faded away when there was an admission that the particular article was not able to be recalled, just the gist of the content which had been thrown up in conversation.

That conversation had stuck with me.  One person was alluding to an unnamed source that while poorly remembered had obviously had some traction with her for anti-vaccination but she had not been prompted into cross checking or establishing facts.  It had been believed.  Fragments of it were being repeated.

That reminded me of something I had read about how people believe what they see in print and if a media fact or publication supports their belief system then it gets disseminated.  That concept was one I was, and still am, grappling with in relation to fact that in Australia there has been a massive growth in claims of defamation or emotional distress arising from social media posts.

As an educator I am constantly telling students to treat social media with great caution.  Some young people are so convinced that their doings and opinions about others are of such importance they do not need to contemplate the fact that any statements about others are in the public arena.

Many folk, perhaps like the nurses discussed in the Courier Mail article have used posts to sway opinion or put forward their ideas.  The problem is for the nurses and midwives who have been reported to AHPRA and may face investigation is that a professional is held to a higher standard than the man in the street.  They have standing and reputation that can be used to sway people, their word is relied upon and believed without question.   If they do provide advice or recommendations these need to be supported by evidence that will withstand very hard scrutiny.

In May 2017 it was reported that NSW Judge Judith Gibson, who compiles the details of all defamation cases in Australia for legal publication LexisNexis, had stated that “claims based on publications on the internet, emails and on social media, are now far more common than claims against traditional media defendants”.  “The anonymity instantaneous and wide-ranging reach of the Internet and social media make it a dangerous tool in the hands of person who see themselves as caped crusaders or whistleblowers, or alternatively want to ‘troll’ other members of the community for the purpose of gratifying their own wishes or fears or for the purpose of gaining attention”.

Nurses are accountable to their codes, here opinions on Facebook could be seen to fall outside of the Code of Professional Conduct, it might be that under Conduct Statement 6 “Nurses provide impartial, honest and accurate information in relation to nursing care and health care products”, they could be found to have been unsatisfactory.

Not because they are failing to “adhere to the party line on vaccination” but because they are outside the boundaries of the profession and have identified their professional standing in these posts.  One thing is certain the Nursing and Midwifery Board will not ignore these reports.

The Board published its Position statement October 2016 Nurses, midwives and vaccination.   In that publication they stated “NMBA position on nurses, midwives and vaccination: The NMBA has become aware that there are a small number of registered nurses, enrolled nurses and midwives who are promoting anti-vaccination statements to patients and the public via social media which contradict the best available scientific evidence. The NMBA is taking this opportunity to make its expectations about providing advice on vaccinations clear to registered nurses, enrolled nurses and midwives. The NMBA recognises the Australian National Immunisation Handbook 10th edition as providing evidence-based advice to health professionals about the safe and effective use of vaccines and the public health benefits associated with vaccination. The NMBA supports the use of the handbook by registered nurses, enrolled nurses and midwives who are giving vaccines”.  The Board stated they would investigate every allegation to determine whether regulatory action is required.

The position statement was attacked by the Vaccination Information Network which claimed “There are in fact countless medical studies which document the dangers of vaccines and the harm vaccines cause”.  The area is contested and convictions are strong.

I do not pretend to have sufficient knowledge to participate in the arguments, nor the do I have the capacity to predict what might be the findings of any investigation.  What I do believe is any use of social media as a professional is landmine territory.  Advertising your views or opinions needs to be within the lines drawn by the Code of Ethics and the Code of Professional Conduct.

When you read these professional codes they can be interpreted very broadly or very narrowly in order to judge, so be your own censor.

There are some fabulous webinar recordings by Pam Savage regarding Nurses and the Law on the Nurses for Nurses Network. The  Nurses for Nurses Network provides good information and CPD  on an array of nursing topics in a range of easy learning ways including webinars and quizzes on the latest information that Nurses need to know – remember the Nurses for Nurses Network was created by Australian Nurses for Nurses!