Social media can cause big problems for healthcare workers and their employers. Because of HIPAA rules and other concerns, posting something as seemingly harmless as a selfie with a patient could ruin careers, or worse. Healthcare professionals do form bonds and friendships with some of their patients and because social media has become a place where people share details of their lives and their friends’ lives, it is understandable that a healthcare worker might slip up and post something that he or she shouldn’t. Understandable, but not excusable.
Healthcare workers are advised of HIPAA rules and know that information about their patients is confidential, but that hasn’t stopped some healthcare workers from getting into trouble for their social media posts. For example, when a police officer was brought into an emergency room and the staff was unable to save him, some posted their condolences on Facebook, complete with the name of the deceased officer. To make matters worse, the officer’s family had yet to be notified.
Certainly, the ER staffers were reacting to the heartbreak of losing a patient and doing what felt natural in the moment—sharing thoughts and feelings on social media. They were acting out of kindness.
Intent Doesn’t Matter
A post that is meant to be kind is still not OK. The bottom line is this: sharing any information about a patient is a HIPAA violation even if the social media account has the highest possible privacy settings (which are never 100% reliable), and even if the post is mourning the loss of a patient.
As Ed Bennett, director of Web strategy at University of Maryland Medical System points out, “We already have guidelines; social media is simply another form of communication. It’s no different from e-mail or talking to someone in an elevator. The safe advice is to assume anything you put out on a social media site has the potential to be public.”
What About Free Speech?
A recent social media conduct survey found that 41.2% of Americans believe that getting fired because of a social media post is an infringement of their First Amendment rights. In the private sector, it’s usually not.
The First Amendment affords Americans the right to free speech, which means they can express themselves without interference or constraint by the government. The First Amendment does not protect employees from private sector disciplinary action.
Healthcare professionals can get fired for a post, even one that does not violate HIPAA laws, as a Philadelphia hospital employee learned when she posted a racially-charged rant on social media. Word spread (because social media is not private!), someone started a change.org petition to demand that the hospital fire the employee (for a post that had nothing to do with her job) and the worker was fired.
Headaches All Around
An inappropriate social media post can become a major headache for everyone involved. According to the AMA:
Criminal penalties for a violation of HIPAA are directly applicable to covered entities—including health plans, health care clearinghouses, health care providers who transmit claims in electronic form, and Medicare prescription drug card sponsors. Individuals such as directors, employees, or officers of the covered entity, where the covered entity is not an individual, may also be directly criminally liable under HIPAA in accordance with principles of “corporate criminal liability.”
HIPAA was enacted in 1996 and social media didn’t begin to hit its stride until Facebook opened to the public in 2006. Since employers are liable, and HIPAA doesn’t explicitly address social media, many deem it prudent to have a very clear social media policy. As a healthcare employee, you should be aware of your employer’s policies, which may go above and beyond HIPAA.
The healthcare provider/client relationship is like no other. Healthcare professionals know the most personal details about their patients, and they care about their patients, yet they’re expected to maintain a professional relationship.
According to the US Department of Labor, “Employment of healthcare occupations is projected to grow 19 percent from 2014 to 2024, much faster than the average for all occupations, adding about 2.3 million new jobs. Healthcare occupations will add more jobs than any other group of occupations.” Workers of the future who have grown up with social media and habitually post random moments of their days on Snapchat or Instagram will have to learn to curb that behavior if they intend to get a job in the healthcare field—and keep it.
Ellen Gipko is a marketing analyst for white label SEO firm HubShout, and a writer specializing in the topics of social media and digital marketing. She has contributed content to Social Media Today, Search Engine Watch, Search Engine Journal and other industry websites.