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Posted on 02.17.2012

When Social Posts Go Awry – A Reminder to Healthcare Workers

Social media is becoming an increasingly valuable tool for many healthcare professionals. But legal issues can arise when healthcare providers using social media platforms send posts that constitute HIPAA violations. This important privacy law protects the patient/provider relationship, but limits a medical provider’s ability to engage with a patient through social media. Last month we learned about the tweet that postponed one man’s death row sentence. With this and other social media blunders in mind, it’s worth a second thought to consider the effect a post will have – on your friends, your followers, even your job – before broadcasting a status or tweet to your networks. And for healthcare professionals, even posts with the best intentions can have career damaging effects. The National Council of State Boards of Nursing recently released a white paper to encourage appropriate use of social media by nursing professionals – without compromising patient privacy and confidentiality. The social media guideline is an extensive document and includes suggestions for healthcare practitioners, such as:
  • Refrain from sending patient images by any electronic media device.
  • Maintain professional boundaries in the use of electronic media. Use caution when
engaging in online social contact with patients or former patients.
  • Do not share, post or otherwise disseminate any information, including images, about a patient, or information gained in the nurse-patient relationship, with anyone unless there is a patient care related need to disclose the information or other legal obligation to do so.
In one scenario, a licensed practical/vocational nurse used his personal cell phone to take pictures of a group home resident. He later showed these photos to a former hospital employee outside of work and discussed the patient’s condition. Although the nurse had permission from the resident’s family member to take the photos, the patient was physically unable to respond herself. Further, the nurse later acknowledged he had no legitimate (or patient care related) purpose for taking the photos or discussing the patient’s medical history. It was purely a social discussion. The Board of Nursing (BON) determined the nurse’s actions to be a breach of patient confidentiality and imposed disciplinary action, requiring the nurse to take a course on patient privacy and ethics. Fortunately, this incident did not result in harm to the patient or damage to the group home.  Many similar scenarios, particularly those that involve social media, end in a negative publicity for an organization, loss of licensure for caregivers, even jail time. Many issues with online communication begin when the lines are blurred between professional and personal relationships. As a medical professional, the nurse has an obligation to maintain professional boundaries in the digital environment. So what can hospitals and healthcare organizations do to ensure employees and medical staff members appropriately engage in social media?
  • Have a strong social media policy that corresponds to your organization’s code of conduct.  Make sure employees, physicians and even volunteers understand the policy – and the consequences of violating it. And as part of your hospital’s annual compliance training, make sure employees know how to keep professional and personal boundaries clear.
  • Monitor your organization’s presence on social media at least daily. SocialMention and Technorati can help a hospital monitor its presence or “buzz” in social media, and TweetDeck or HootSuite can help you manage your organization’s social media accounts. Radian6, Cision and Meltwater, among others, are paid services that provide real-time social media monitoring and allow companies to measure and track a variety of social media metrics.
  • Consider in advance how to respond in the event of a social media HIPAA violation. Have a consistent method for dealing with social media violations and act accordingly.
  • Advise clinicians never to give out person-specific medical advice through social media. Offer only general information – and use disclaimers! When responding to forums or other online outlets, always state that readers/followers should consult with their physician first.
You can find the rest of the NCSBN’s social media guidelines here. For more healthcare examples, visit Ed Bennett’s blog, the leading resource on hospital use of social media. From best practice techniques to crisis communication in the digital era, Found in Cache can be a valuable resource for healthcare marketers looking to stay informed of the latest social media strategies and statistics. Does your organization have and enforce social media guidelines? Let us know which methods are successful at your company in the comments below.

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