Are health care and social media a bad combination?

HIPAA rules put constraints on what can and cannot be shared, and even inadvertent violations can spell big trouble for individuals and organizations alike.

Social media has revolutionized how we communicate.

From saving lives in the wake of natural disasters to helping people in medical distress find organs, it promises incredible positive potential—yet it also harbors hidden dangers.

With health care, for example, you have to be very cautious with what you publicize. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, safeguards the privacy of patient information and can cost employees their jobs when violated, even inadvertently.

For example, not long ago an emergency room nurse was fired from her job at New York Presbyterian Hospital for posting a sensitive photo on Instagram. The image, which was technically a repost, depicted a messy trauma room after it had been used to treat a man hit by a subway car.

That’s not the first time social media has led to disaster. Last year, an Illinois doctor posted provocative photos of a patient on various social media sites displaying her in an intoxicated state after she had been admitted to the hospital for overconsumption of alcohol. The patient was in no position to grant consent for these images to be snapped or posted, and she is suing.

In general, unauthorized photo sharing on social media is probably not the best idea. Politicians and others have borne the brunt of unwise, even salacious, sharing. In health care, breaking the HIPAA privacy laws can lead to more than public shame, though: It can end in substantial lawsuits—which makes perfect sense, given the importance of safeguarding an individual’s rights to medical privacy.

Always keep HIPAA in mind so your health care facility can create and enforce a written policy for situations involving possible social media infractions.

It might even be a good idea to hold classes to teach employees which social media behaviors are acceptable and which aren’t. They might not know.

Michael Sherman is the director of social media at Wax Custom Communications. A version of this article originally ran on Wax Impressions.

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