Like many Americans, physicians have discovered the value of social media. Whether they seek to market their practices, educate consumers about health concerns, or engage with patients online, many physicians see the potential in an economic way to reach large audiences quickly via Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and other sites.
Over 70 percent of family physicians and oncologists use social media more than once a month, according to one survey. Another benefit, clearly, is these sites allow physicians to keep up with news and trends relating to health, medicine and patient care.
Physicians, and all healthcare professionals, should understand the risks of using social media improperly, as these risks could easily outweigh the benefits. Using social media inappropriately could lead to a liability suit that could damage a physician’s reputation or could cause the release of confidential patient information.
The release of patient information would violate HIPAA, which requires physicians and all healthcare entities to safeguard what it calls protected health information (PHI). The law defines PHI as any individually identifiable health information that medical practice or any associate of the practice maintains or transmits in any form. Such a broad definition makes physicians, anyone working for the practice and any vendor who contracts with the practice potentially liable if PHI is released to the public.
Several organizations, including the AMA and the American Association of Family Physicians, have published guidelines for social media use. Another excellent source of such guidance comes from the Federation of State Medical Boards, the group that represents the agencies in every state that discipline physicians. The federation’s 14-page Model Policy Guidelines for the Appropriate Use of Social Media and Social Networking in Medical Practice, is designed to educate state boards on social media. In one section of the guidelines, the federation outlines its recommendations for physicians who use social media and social networking personally and professionally. It recommends following these three steps, saying physicians should:
1. Limit discussions with patients about medical treatment. Therefore, they should never do so on personal social networking sites because anyone with access to these sites could view a physician’s comments about a patient’s care.
2. Provide no information that could identify patients because doing so could be a HIPAA violation.
3. Assume all risks related to the security, privacy and confidentiality of their posts when posting online. Assuming such risk means that when moderating any website, physicians should delete inaccurate information and posts that violate the privacy and confidentiality of patients or that are unprofessional.
Perhaps the best way to sum up the federation’s advice is this — always be professional. Always follow the same principles of professionalism online as you would offline. Use separate accounts for personal and professional social networking sites and for email. This way you can maintain professionalism and confidentiality in your professional postings and still enjoy personal, more casual conversations where appropriate on your personal sites.