How can GPs respond to online abuse and cyberbullying?

Anna Samecki

12/04/2022 4:53:15 PM

Doctors are no strangers to negative comments, but there are options available when lines are crossed and online behaviour becomes menacing, harassing or offensive.

Stressed medical professional in front of a laptop
More and more doctors are reportedly experiencing online abuse and bullying.

The number of doctors being subjected to online abuse and cyberbullying is on the rise.
Unfortunately, the pandemic has only made a bad problem worse, with reports of some doctors receiving death threats simply for providing essential services such as vaccination.
One GP who knows all too well the experience of public shaming is Dr Chris Higgins.
He was publicly vilified and subjected to a trial by news and social media in early 2020, after former Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos said she was ‘flabbergasted’ that he attended work after suffering cold-like symptoms.
Within hours of her comments, his clinic’s Google page was flooded by defamatory remarks and negative posts.
Speaking to newsGP about the ordeal, Dr Higgins says Ms Mikakos didn’t name him directly, but she did name his clinic and it wasn’t hard for journalists to determine which doctor from the practice had just come back from America.
‘I had just been to the west coast of America where there were no confirmed cases of COVID, although it was later found to be rife, and then flew back and landed in Melbourne on a Saturday morning,’ he said.
‘On Sunday, I had what seemed like a very mild cold, but by Monday when I was due to go back to work, I pretty much felt back to normal, and so I worked through the week.’
Dr Higgins did not meet the criteria for testing at the time, but says he performed a COVID-19 swab as his clinic happened to receive stock of new swabs that week.
‘Then I got a call 24 hours later to say I had COVID,’ he said.
‘I think I was only about the seventh person in Victoria.
‘I was so surprised, and then the next thing I knew I was on the front page of the paper.’
Despite testing positive, Dr Higgins says none of the 70 patients he saw that week ended up with COVID – but the damage was done, as the widespread media coverage led to hundreds of negative online comments from complete strangers.
‘I was pretty angry at how I was portrayed in the paper,’ he said.
‘I felt her comment was so unfair, I needed to justify myself.’
Dr Higgins subsequently responded to Ms Mikakos on her Facebook page, which soon got the attention of media as well as fellow colleagues.
‘My rebuttal was in the papers the next day,’ he said.
‘I also got a lot of support from the medical profession; in fact, I don’t think I remember the medical profession ever being so united against anything.’
Dr Higgins is not the first and certainly won’t be the last doctor to experience online abuse and bullying.
Just this month, high-profile doctor and author Dr Yumiko Kadota, reported she was being bullied online by another doctor posting anonymously under a pseudonym.
On her Facebook page, Dr Kadota says the doctor wrote ‘nasty comments’ about her as she called the perpetrator out in a public post.
But Nerissa Ferrie, a medicolegal advisor at MDA National, warns doctors need to be careful about responding to and calling out trolls online.
‘If the perpetrator is also a registered health practitioner, it may be appropriate to report the matter to AHPRA – bearing in mind that AHPRA’s role is to act in the public interest and not to act as a referee in disputes between health professionals,’ she said.
‘If the perpetrator is a patient, doctors may inadvertently breach patient confidentiality by responding online.
‘By naming and shaming, you run the risk of escalating the situation, or you could find yourself the subject of a defamation action, even if you feel you are the victim.’
Ms Ferrie’s main piece of advice for doctors experiencing online abuse and bullying is to contact their medicolegal defence organisation in the first instance.
‘It is important to note that there is a difference between a negative review and online abuse or bullying,’ she said.
‘The new legislation sets the bar high in terms of what constitutes cyber abuse. 
‘To reach the threshold, the eSafety Commissioner says the abuse must intend to cause serious harm, and be menacing, harassing or offensive in all the circumstances.’
However, under the new legislation the eSafety Commissioner now has ‘powers to compel social media and other online publishers to remove content deemed to be bullying within 24 hours or face significant fines’.
Ms Ferrie also says many online platforms also have terms of service that form part of the rules for users.
‘For example, if a doctor is racially abused in a Google review, the review can be flagged for review,’ she said. 
‘If the review is a breach of the terms of service, the platform should remove it. 
‘Similarly, most Facebook community pages and groups have an administrator, and this is often the person best placed to review and remove inappropriate content.’
As for Dr Higgins, he says while he never received an apology from Ms Mikakos, he did receive a letter saying he had to understand that ‘times were difficult’.
He also says his main piece of advice for those in a similar position, is to speak up and take action.
‘If you want to protest about what’s happening to you, and you think that’s the right thing to do, then go ahead,’ he said.
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