Physician Cautioned by Complaints Committee for ‘Unprofessional’ COVID Tweets
March 2021 Charity & NFP Law Update
Published on March 25, 2021

By Esther Shainblum


An Ontario physician received disciplinary cautions for posting tweets from a personal account challenging public health advice and regulations for the COVID-19 pandemic. The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario published the February 3, 2021 decisions last month from its Inquiries, Complaints and Reports Committee (“ICRC”), finding that a physician’s comments on Twitter presented a “possible risk to public health.” The ICRC oversees investigations into physicians’ “care and conduct” in Ontario, and “inquiries into a physician’s capacity to practise” in the province. This situation demonstrates the importance for registered charities and not-for-profit organizations of having a comprehensive social media policy in place.  A well drafted social media policy allows registered charities and not-for-profit organizations to protect themselves from liability and reputational damage by outlining guidelines and expectations for the online conduct of their employees and volunteers, whether at or outside the workplace, and subject them to disciplinary action if they fail to comply.

Complaints to the ICRC described tweets and re-tweets by the physician with concerns that she was “willfully spreading false and misleading information regarding COVID-19 that goes directly against the advice and recommendations of local, provincial and federal medical/science and public health authorities.” Some of the physician’s social media comments cast doubts on the seriousness of the pandemic, the effectiveness of vaccines or personal protection such as masks compared with other possible treatments, as well as the necessity of lockdown regulations. These comments by a licensed physician, which undermined the official public health message, were “inappropriate and unprofessional” according to the ICRC. 

The ICRC rejected the physician’s argument that her tweets were from a personal account that had no affiliation with her practice. Her Twitter biography “makes it very clear that she is a physician and also identifies her as the leader of a group of physicians,” the ICRC noted, adding that her tweets were accessible by the public, and that “members of the public who are not healthcare professionals are likely to attribute significant weight and authority” to her messages, because of her profession. Further, posting re-tweets are no different from authoring tweets, the ICRC found, because “both indicate an endorsement of the information.” Physicians are required to use social media responsibly in either context, the ICRC stated. The physician has appealed to the Health Professions Appeal and Review Board, as well as commenced an application for judicial review in the Divisional Court.


Read the March 2021 Charity & NFP Law Update