Health IT Pulse

Apr 25 2011   12:00PM GMT

The cost of getting health care social media wrong

Beastwood Profile: Beastwood

HIPAA Privacy Rule
social media

In the 1964 Supreme Court case Jacobellis v. Ohio, Justice Potter Stewart famously explained, in an attempt to define obscenity, that “I know it when I see it.” The same principle, it seems, applies today when defining health care social media best practices.

Physicians writing in the Annals of Internal Medicine suggest that their peers take “a proactive approach…that includes actively managing one’s online presence and making informed choices about disclosure.” Doctors should know a bad idea when they see it, then.

Posting details of emergency room experiences on Facebook is a health care social media no-no, as a physician at Westerly (R.I.) Hospital recently learned. Patients were not called out by name in this case, but the details about one particular patient’s injuries were specific enough that a third party was able to identify the patient, in a clear violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). The physician in question was reprimanded and fined.

That one’s obvious. But what if the physician had the patient’s permission and was presenting the information in an educational manner, much like a marketing case study? That one’s tricky, and it points to the importance of drafting a health care social media policy.

The Ohio State Medical Association has a developed a pretty thorough policy, which covers common scenarios such as providing basic medical advice to Facebook friends or responding to negative feedback about a colleague. The document also outlines what physicians must do to avoid violating HIPAA regulations as well as Federal Trade Commission rules. Clearly, the consequences of getting health care social media wrong can be much more significant than a reprimand and a fine.

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