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Perils of Social Media for Healthcare Professionals​​​ 

The popularity of social media has important implications for healthcare professionals and students who should consider the risks associated with its use and proceed with caution, as inappropriate postings could lead to serious consequences. 

Social Media Risks

Social media poses hazards for healthcare professionals and students, who must remember that professional standards are the same online as in any other circumstance. Two high-risk areas include: 

  • Violations of patient privacy and/or confidentiality. Breaches of patient privacy/confidentially can be intentional or inadvertent, with inappropriate postings including patient photos, negative comments about patients, or details that might identify patients.

  • Unprofessional behavior. Standards of ethical conduct require healthcare personnel and students to act in a professional and moral manner. Examples of unprofessional behavior/inappropriate postings include photos or comments about alcohol or drug use; profane, sexually explicit, or racially derogatory comments; negative comments about co-workers, and employers; or threatening or harassing comments. 

Common misunderstandings about social media also may contribute toward unacceptable postings, such as the incorrect belief that postings are private and accessible only by the intended recipient; deleted content is no longer available; it’s okay to talk about patients using nicknames, room numbers, or diagnoses; and it’s harmless to disclose patient information if it’s accessed only by the intended recipient.

Potential Consequences 

The ramifications of unprofessional social media behavior could have serious negative consequences. Complaints to professional governing boards could come from anyone with direct—or indirect—access to social media, including patients and their family, employers and co-workers, family and friends, and law enforcement agencies. Disciplinary action could ensue, with results ranging from a reprimand and fine to temporary or permanent loss of licensure. If federal or state laws are broken, there also is the potential for civil and criminal penalties.

Protect Yourself 

By using caution with social media, healthcare professionals and students can mitigate risks. The following tips can help keep your social media content in the clear:

  • Always maintain patient privacy and confidentiality. 

  • Do not post patient images, identify patients by name, or post information that could identify patients. 

  • Do not refer to patients in a disparaging manner, even if patients are not identified.

  • Do not take photos or videos of patients on personal cell phones.

  • Use caution when connecting with patients or former patients via social media.

  • Minimize use of social media and avoid sharing too much personal information. 

  • Remove inappropriate photos, negative comments about colleagues or employers, and evidence of drug and alcohol use. 

  • Be aware of and comply with employer policies regarding use of employer-owned electronic devices and use of personal devices at work. 

  • Promptly report any identified breach of confidentiality or privacy. 

Conclusion 

Social media is great way to connect with family and friends, but beware. Healthcare professionals and students need to realize that online postings are permanent and can negatively affect their license and ability to practice. To protect yourself, think twice before you post content that could be judged as “unprofessional.” 

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References 

  1. National Council of State Boards of Nursing. White Paper: A Nurse’s Guide to the Use of Social Media. August 2011.

About the Author 

Melanie Balestra, RN, NP, JD, is a partner at Cummins & White, LLP, a business and insurance law firm based in Newport Beach, Calif. Her practice focuses on issues that affect healthcare providers, including nurses, nurse practitioners, physicians, physical therapists, pharmacists, and dentists. Melanie also works as a pediatric nurse practitioner at the Laguna Beach Community Clinic in Laguna Beach, Calif. She can be reached at mbalestra@cwlawyers.com.​

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