Five Social Media Risks Medical Practices Should Watch Out For

September 20, 2013

The social media activity of your medical practice staff could be putting you and your practice at risk.

The social media activity of your medical practice staff could be putting you and your practice at risk.

That's according to Ann McNary, senior risk manager at Arlington, Va.-based Professional Risk Management Services, Inc., which specializes in medical professional liability insurance programs and risk management services for physicians, practices, and other healthcare organizations.

"In the event that say, confidentiality is breached or someone felt insulted by something that was posted by an employee and wanted to bring action against the practice, the practice could potentially be held liable, even though the doctors themselves had no particular involvement in it," McNary recently told Physicians Practice.

While staff's inappropriate social media use could raise serious problems, physicians' social media mistakes are another huge risk area for practices - and physicians, she added. "There’s the potential that someone might file a board complaint against the physician, someone could sue for breach of confidentiality, someone might allege a HIPAA violation against them."

Still, this doesn't mean physicians and staff should steer clear of social media for personal use entirely. They just need to take some extra precautions when using it.

Here are five of the biggest social media risk areas McNary said physicians and staff should watch out for:  

1. Exposure of protected health information (PHI). The casual nature of social media sometimes causes physicians and staff to let their guard down and make costly mistakes, such as inadvertently exposing PHI on their social media pages, said McNary. She added: "There's a common misperception that as long as you don’t name names you're fine. The problem is that oftentimes people can be identified just because of a particular scenario or a description."

2. Boundary violations. "All physicians have to maintain certain boundaries, professional boundaries with their patients," said McNary. The same boundaries apply when interacting on social media. "When we're engaging in social media there’s a tendency that we people get a little more relaxed and there's just that potential that that professional boundary is breached," she said.

3. Inadvertent creation of a treatment relationship. When physicians have an online presence, individuals sometimes ask them treatment related questions online. If physicians answer such questions, it can open a can of worms. "There is that potential that the reader then takes that advice believing they’ve received medical advice and potentially a treatment relationship is established regardless of the intent of the physician," said McNary. "If, for instance, the person receiving the advice resides in a state that's different than the physician's license ... he or she may potentially be accused of practicing without a license."

4. Discoverability. All social media activity (on behalf of the practice, its physicians, and its staff) is potentially discoverable should a lawsuit arise. "In the event of litigation or perhaps if a board complaint is filed against a physician in a practice, the plaintiff’s side would have the opportunity to access that information and admit it into evidence that could potentially be used against the practice," said McNary. "It's all potentially fair game just depending on who is involved and what the allegations are."

5. Unprofessional conduct. If a patient is concerned about a physician's social media activity (for instance if he believes the physician is posting inappropriate photos to his Facebook page) the patient may file a complaint with the physician's state medical board. "Doctors just have to be aware that it’s a little bit different [for them than other professions]," said McNary. "They don’t go home at 5 o'clock and stop being doctors; they always have to maintain certain decorum."