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Posted on 09.22.2017

‘Mini Satans’: An All Too Common Lesson on HIPAA Violations

In a scenario played out with remarkable frequency, two nurses from a Florida hospital were removed from patient care this week after Snapchat photos showed one of the nurses giving the middle finger to a newborn with a caption that read, “How I currently feel about these mini Satans.”

This is not the first time an incident like this has happened and it won’t be the last. Less than six months ago, two physicians at a Pennsylvania hospital were suspended after numerous hospital employees were allowed to crowd into an operating room and take photos and videos of a patient receiving treatment for a genital injury.

It may come as a surprise, but even healthcare professionals sometimes make bad decisions on social media. These decisions can violate their patient’s privacy, compromise their employer and ultimately jeopardize or end their career.

While one might assume healthcare professionals should know better, there are lessons to be learned from each new incident and the resulting public outcry.

Social Media Policy

The importance of having a social media policy to govern your organization’s interactions on social platforms cannot be overstated. Policies can range from a simple list of dos and don’ts to guidance on how employees can utilize social media to raise positive awareness of the company brand in the correct context. Many healthcare organizations even publish their social media policies publicly.

Employee Onboarding and Training

If these incidences teach us anything, it’s that even healthcare providers, who we assume have an innate consideration for patient privacy, need to be educated on the role of social media and their responsibilities relative to its use. This should be covered in employee manuals and during new employee onboarding or regular trainings. For acute care hospitals, healthcare systems, vendors and other organizations whose employees interact with patients, it’s important to have a well-defined social media policy that is reviewed during new hire orientation and updated regularly to reflect current trends. 

Monitoring

In the case of the two nurses in Florida, the offensive social media post was on a personal Snapchat account, not on their employer’s social media outlet; outcry from other social media users made the issue public. This makes the case for broadening your organization’s current social media monitoring efforts (or starting a monitoring process) to include mentions or tags of your organization on non-owned outlets. For example, a nurse may post an Instagram photo of a holiday lunch and tag the location as your hospital (or the social media platform may do it for her, if she’s enabled location services). A search of that platform would present that image as a result. Keyword searches can be conducted manually in every social platform, but for large organizations, utilizing monitoring software should be a consideration to track all mentions across the internet landscape.

Crisis Management Preparation

If we’ve learned anything from past examples of very public HIPAA violations, it’s that it will probably happen again. All the more reason for your organization to have a crisis or issues management plan in place to address potential patient privacy violations as it relates to social media. Components of a social media crisis plan should include best practices, examples of internal and external response messages and a notification timeline to guide dissemination of information – always keeping in mind patients’ and/or patients’ guardians should be notified quickly before any news media.   

Amanda Anderson is a Senior Account Supervisor at Lovell Communications. Connect with Amanda at amanda@lovell.com.

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