Curing the Risk of Improper Social Media Use Amongst Health Care Professionals

Mary H. Carlson
Associate Editor
Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2018


Social media has emerged as a preferred platform for the expression of personal opinions, a means of gathering new information, and as an important networking tool. However, health care profs subject themselves to particular dangers health care professionals (HCPs) subject themselves to when using social media. Although self-monitoring can solve part of the problem, health care employers need to step in. This article will explore the pitfalls of social media and ways to avoid such blunders in the health care profession.

The Risks of Social Media

 Breach of patient confidentiality and the online publication of unprofessional content, pose two of the greatest problems facing HCP’s social media use.  In the evaluation of the scope and content of HCP’s blogs, researchers identified 271 personal medical blogs from which they collected data. Of those 271 blogs, 56.7% of their authors provided enough information which revealed their own identities and 42.1% described individual patients. 43 authors described their patients in a positive manner, while 48 of them discussed their patients in a negative manner. Patients identified themselves or their doctors in 45 blogs. Three blogs even included images in which specific patients were easily recognizable. This presents major problems. Although 3/271 is a relatively small percentage (1.1%), this still poses an outright breach of patient confidentiality.

While overt violations of patient privacy are rare, careless postings by HCPs are much more common. HCPs can easily accidently post something which makes themselves more readily identifiable to their patients, colleagues, or to the surrounding community. Risk to the HCP’s identity and their place of business can come from a single photo in a pair of branded scrubs.

Today’s digital world presents a very real risk of employers discovering unprofessional content on blogs and social networking sites. In a study with medical students from George Washington University, researchers found that students expressed concerns with their own online presence. Posters were not often thinking beyond the post until researchers peaked their awareness; as one student noted, “You have a professional personality, and you have a social personality”. Many students in the study failed to realize that any random Googler can view a single medical student as the spokesperson of the entire medical community. The researchers discovered that the medical students viewed their social media presence in light of their own personal risk and possible consequences for their own career, rather than how their own behavior will negatively reflect their peers, their employers, and the entire medical profession.

As the use of blogs and social media continues to grow amongst HCPs, contributors should realized the public nature of their postings. Negative comments about the profession or their patients, violations of patient privacy, and unprofessional tone or content could have adverse effects on the HCPs themselves, as well as their employer and the profession.

The Cure?

Constant monitoring of HCP’s social media would place an impossible burden on health care employers. Instead, there are various ways in which employers can build an effective compliance program in order to gain some reassurance that their employees’ actions don’t violate the HIPAA Privacy Rule.

Conducting training and education creates an easy solution to the problem. New HCPs are not adjusted to the idea of keeping an online presence. Health care employers must train HPCs to change their online habits in order to avoid severe consequences. Such changes include making all social media accounts completely private, deleting particularly scandalous posts, changing screen names, or creating entirely new professional accounts. Training and education also serve an important role in teaching HCPs what to post in order to avoid a breach of patient confidentiality.

Health care employers need to appropriately detect and respond to offenses. Moreover, they must develop enduring corrective actions. Reiteration of the fact that an HCP’s actions negatively impact their colleagues and their place of business aids in the realization that an HCP’s actions expands harm further than they may realize. Enacting a “no cellphone use” policy could help establish an even better means of avoiding heat-of-the-moment posts, or inappropriate photos.

Finally, an emphasis must be placed on the importance of enforcing strong disciplinary standards. At the end of the day, all standards should be made with the well-being of the patient in mind. Well-established and well-publicized social media guidelines make these standards clear and apparent. If these standards are not met, appropriate levels of discipline should be taken.