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Monthly Advice from Croner-i

How to deal with abusive online comments in your practice

Healthcare staff are increasingly facing abusive comments on social media platforms. Comments may be inappropriate, inaccurate or simply offensive, causing distress and harm to staff and services that receive them. It is important that practices know how to manage inappropriate posts and support their staff who become victims of this.

The definition of online abuse

Although “abuse” is not legally defined, the BMA describes it as behaviour directed at staff by patients and people who use services, or their friends and family, that is “unwarranted and deliberately intended to upset, threaten, bully or otherwise cause distress and aggravation”.

“Online abuse” occurs when a device is used, such as a computer or mobile phone, to send or post abusive messages over the internet. Messages are considered to be a form of “harassment” if an employee is subjected to two or more connected abusive posts online which cause them distress or alarm.

It is also considered an offence in law for a person to send online messages that contain threats, or are grossly offensive, obscene or menacing, where the author’s intention is to cause the recipient distress or anxiety. The offence of “false information” is also considered if a person posts an online communication that they know to be untrue.

Steps to take

It is important to have a clear policy on dealing with abusive comments online. This should be discussed with staff and applied consistently. Staff should also be given information and advice about their rights and the risks associated with any course of action they might want to take. If anyone is worried about how to deal with an online situation, they should always speak to their data protection officer (DPO) and line manager.

When abusive communications are received, a practice needs to be focused on recording, reporting internally, investigating and then considering any action carefully.

The first step is to save screenshots, and record and collect posts. Staff must be careful not to enquire about the person posting online or look through any personal files to try to identify them.

Early reporting of any online abuse to a manager and DPO should be encouraged. The manager and the DPO should investigate any case where the identity of the person is known before any response is issued, as there could be underlying reasons for their behaviour, such as mental health issues.

Considering an appropriate response

Members of staff should avoid giving an immediate response without discussing it first. If the person posting the online message can be identified by the DPO and it is considered appropriate to contact them, practices should respond directly by asking them to amend or remove the comment.

If the abuse is grossly disturbing, offensive or shocking, the police may need to be involved. The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 covers more serious offences of criminal harassment.

Online abuse and misinformation can have a damaging effect on members of staff. It can spiral out of control very quickly and can lead to more serious forms of abuse, so a combination of practical measures and prompt action, and legal advice where necessary, can help to prevent a situation from becoming unmanageable.