All Agog About Blogs

January 29, 2009
Rosemarie Nelson

Has one of your patients ever suggested you start a blog because your advice and care has been so outstanding? Or maybe you’ve been burned by a patient complaint on some doctor-rating site and want to defend yourself? Or just maybe, you’re a closet chef and want an escape from your day job? <br /><br /> Then go for it.

Has one of your patients ever suggested you start a blog because your advice and care has been so outstanding? Or maybe you’ve been burned by a patient complaint on some doctor-rating site and want to defend yourself? Or just maybe, you’re a closet chef and want an escape from your day job?

Then go for it.

Blogs let you communicate directly with your existing patients and potential new patients. Think of the blog as a faster (and broader) form of word-of-mouth promotion. However, beware: One posting can, and most likely will, eventually be interpreted by a reader with unintended consequences.

So, your first decision is whether to use a pseudonym or to write a bit more restrictively using your real name, which adds credibility.

How do you decide which is best for you? First, define what you want to blog about:

  • Medical issues - Why patients decline a flu shot, hospital staffing of nurses, whatever is most topical. As an expert in your field, you may be more inclined to use your blog to promote yourself and therefore use your real identity. With a marketing objective, you may choose to post your blog on your practice Web site and/or offer RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds so readers can subscribe to your blog.

  • Personal interests - Gardening, the Yankees, global warming, movie reviews. If you’re more interested in sharing recipes, vacation photos, and family updates with friends and family, a private blog may be better.

Either way, post a disclaimer to give you a safety net. For example, here’s my disclaimer on this column:

“I am not licensed, certified, or otherwise legally entitled to practice law. Therefore, where questions of a specific legal nature are involved, appropriate counsel must be sought.”

You’ll find similar disclaimers on various medical doctors’ blogs, such as a medical advice disclaimer; a financial, legal, and other advice disclaimer; or an information disclaimer. For some bloggers, the disclaimer may be an afterthought, as on UroStream. Sophisticated bloggers even include a “terms of use agreement” and/or posting guidelines, which explicitly state responsibilities and expectations. You may also see disclaimers about links to advertisers, age restrictions, indemnifications, and intellectual property right statements.

Other legal liability issues include:

  • Defamation

  • Intellectual property (copyright/trademark)

  • Trade secrets

  • Right of publicity

  • Publication of private facts

  • Intrusion into seclusion

The Constitution and federal laws, such as copyright law, apply nationwide. However, many laws that affect bloggers - including defamation, reporter shield laws, and privacy laws (within constitutional boundaries) - vary from state to state, so learn your own state's regulations.

Starting to sound overwhelming? It’s really not. But do keep liability in mind as any person making a publication available to the public would. Note: You’ll also enjoy the same freedom of speech and press protections.

You could also blog anonymously. The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the First Amendment right to speak anonymously:

“Author is generally free to decide whether or not to disclose his or her true identity. The decision in favor of anonymity may be motivated by fear of economic or official retaliation, by concern about social ostracism, or merely by a desire to preserve as much of one’s privacy as possible. Whatever the motivation may be... the interest in having anonymous works enter the marketplace of ideas unquestionably outweighs any public interest in requiring disclosure as a condition of entry. Accordingly, an author’s decision to remain anonymous, like other decisions concerning omissions or additions to the content of a publication, is an aspect of the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment.”

For more information, visit the Electronic Frontier Foundation and seek appropriate legal counsel.

Rosemarie Nelson is a principal with the MGMA healthcare consulting group. She conducts educational seminars and provides keynote speeches on a variety of healthcare-technology and operational topics. Drawing upon her diverse experience, Rosemarie provides practical solutions to help medical groups succeed in their practices. She may be reached via physicianspractice@cmpmedica.com.