Can a medical practitioner, or for that matter any professional, who airs denigrating or biased views on social media, be expected to provide appropriate treatment, care, or service to persons or communities they target?
Recently, the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal upheld an August 2019 decision of the Medical Board of Australia to suspend Melbourne-based general practitioner Dr. Jereth Kok’s registration.
Kok had been accused of over the years posting on social media against LGBTQI persons, women, and allegedly “endorsing genocide toward racial and religious groups”.
The board had cited some 30 examples of Kok’s offensive social media posts.
“Some of the posts on a simple reading of them, arguably denigrate, demean and slur medical practitioners who provide termination of pregnancies, recognise and treat gender dysphoria (in a manner that is in accordance with accepted medical practice) and recognise that people who identify as transgender are not suffering from a mental health condition”, noted the VCAT in its order
Some of the posts, particularly read in isolation, do appear to endorse or call for violence and/or genocide towards racial and religious groups and endorse calls for capital punishment for members of the profession who provide termination of pregnancy services. Some of the posts do arguably express demeaning views regarding LGBQTI individuals”.
The tribunal agreed with the board that the suspension of Kok’s registration, which effectively bars him from medical practice, was in the public interest.
“Any patient who discovers that Dr. Kok expresses views on matters very personal to their own situation could reasonably question whether their own care or the care of others like themselves will be compromised,” said VCAT.
“We are satisfied that such posts have the real potential to undermine public confidence in the provision of services by health professionals. There is a real likelihood that the maintenance of the standards of the medical profession will be undermined by such posts, particularly when posted by a registered medical practitioner.”
The larger question before the board was whether a doctor can separate their professional lives from their personal views that they post on social media, that may be read by their past, present, and future patients.
Dr. Kok had challenged the Board’s powers to suspend his license, provided character references from his patients.
Kok admitted that he had made the social media posts attributed to him, claimed they were taken out of context or misinterpreted, and denied that he had advocated violence. He agreed that some of his posts “do have the potential to cause offense”.
Kok, through his counsel, offered to give an undertaking or proposed that the tribunal may place conditions on his registration in connection with his social media accounts, which would allow him to return to practice.
The tribunal decided that was not enough and nothing short of suspension of the registration would preserve public confidence in the medical profession.
“We have grave concerns about whether the community would accept that any medical practitioner could switch, as though he were a light, from airing disrespectful views online to providing respectful and appropriate treatment for those who fall within a class he denigrates online. We also have concerns about the level of respect he can bring to other members of his own profession with whom he may have to engage and/or refer patients.”
VCAT said that Kok’s conduct affected the reputation of the medical profession.
“The role of the medical practitioner is not that of a machine who writes prescriptions in a cold, clinical manner who when walking through the door of the clinic, dissociates himself with all he has said and done. We consider that both past and present patients may reflect on their treatment differently if they were to become aware of the views expressed on social media by Dr. Kok.
“Members of the medical profession cannot allow their commentary to escalate unchecked without any regard to the impact on or sensibilities of their Code of Conduct. They have responsibilities to current and/or future patients or vulnerable members of the community and the profession regarding their posts. We ultimately consider that Dr. Kok’s conduct compromises the confidence held by the public that they can seek and receive treatment safely not only from him but potentially from other members of the medical profession.”