“Doctors, stay away from social media”

Martin Buijsen

While the web is a source of useful information about medical conditions, treatments and preventive care, it has also become a breeding ground for disinformation. Spreading misleading or unsubstantiated information about health issues can have far-reaching consequences, ranging from undermining trust in scientific authorities to directly harming individual health. Martin Buijsen, Professor of Health Law at Erasmus School of Law, appeared in an article on this subject by Medical Contact. 

Buijsen said people should always be able to choose which sources they draw information from. “The point is that social media can be both sources of information, misinformation and disinformation.” However, according to Buijsen, these people also contribute to this phenomenon. “Those same citizens are not only consumers of information, misinformation and disinformation obtained from social media, but also its producers. And citizens need to be aware of that too. With that individual self-determination also comes responsibility.”

Online health information

Buijsen also believes that the government does have a certain obligation. “I am not in favour of the government simply suppressing information it qualifies as mis- or disinformation without the knowledge of its citizens. However, it does have an obligation to put against mis- and disinformation, information that it does consider correct”, Buijsen said.

Buijsen argues that informing citizens online about medical matters by the profession is nothing wrong. “What I consider to be wrong are expressions by individual healthcare professionals on social media that are incompatible with policies established within the profession as policies to be propagated. Even if the policy is still under development, I consider it right that discussions are not conducted by individual members of the profession on social media. The profession has its own forums, where these discussions should take place.”

Legal implications

Buijsen explains that professionals with BIG registration are subject to the Medical Disciplinary Tribunal. This is a special form of jurisdiction enshrined in the Individual Healthcare Professions Act. "A BIG-registered professional who indulges in statements on social media that are incompatible with the state of science and practice or with what is otherwise customary in the circle of their professional colleagues may be subject to disciplinary action for this. Professional colleagues, professional organisations, the Healthcare and Youth Inspectorate, as well as patients have a duty to ensure that this happens when necessary."

GP in the media about Covid-19

When doctors spread incorrect or misleading health advice on social media, they can be held accountable in disciplinary courts, Buijsen said. Early this year, for instance, there was a case of a GP who, from the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, was critical of the government's position on (the prevention and treatment of) Covid-19 in various media. The inspectorate reproached the GP for not following the rules applicable to him with regard to seeking publicity when making statements in various (social) media. In an interview, he is reported to have said, “So I really see the usefulness of vaccines, but you can't call this a vaccine. This is genetic therapy.” The inspectorate stated that this doctor's actions posed a risk to patient safety and damaged patients' trust in doctors and healthcare. 

The Medical Disciplinary Tribunal ruled in this case that the tone and content of some of the GP's media statements were open to discussion but that it saw little reason to take the GP to task in this respect, given that this was a period of exceptional medical, social and political developments and that members of the government and other authorities could also be caught regularly in the media making statements that went further and were less nuanced than is usual under normal circumstances. As a result, there is no disciplinary culpability in this case. 

Therefore, no disciplinary action has been taken. Buijsen does not think specific laws or regulations could solve this social media problem. “Frankly, I think that would be a hopeless task. But making better use of the tool of the Medical Disciplinary Tribunal would already help.”


Compare @count study programme

  • @title

    • Duration: @duration
Compare study programmes