[ Wednesday, May 30, 2012 ]


A Guest Post: As you may know, I occasionally allow guest posts, and the following is one from Alvina Lopez.

Social media usage and potential HIPAA violators
It’s long been said that you shouldn’t post anything on the web that could come back to haunt you. After all, the web is first and foremost a public entity, a space meant to connect people and reveal information. The openness of the web can be daunting for politicians, private employees, and students of all ages who want to hide their personal lives, but it has particular relevance for people who work in the medical field. Physicians, nurses, administrative aides, and even patients use the web every day just like everyone else. But unlike everyone else, medical professionals and patients have to be extremely careful when discussing things that pertain to medicine.

Useful tool or professional liability?
Popular social media tools like Twitter and Facebook are harmless in the hands of most people, but they can also possess dangerous powers in the hands of medical professionals and the patients that receive their services. The potential privacy issues surrounding social media usage—especially when taken in the context of HIPAA and other privacy restrictions levied upon medical professionals—makes the online experience an extremely delicate one. When HIPAA was passed in 1996 it was a major boon in the fight for increased patient privacy protections, but the law was passed long ago when the web was in its infancy. Lawmakers had no idea of the web’s unlimited power, and they certainly couldn’t anticipate the ubiquity of social media tools designed to communicate with one another publicly.

The openness of most social media tools make them risky options for physicians and nurses who could violate some aspect of HIPAA online without even realizing it. A simple comment on a patient’s Facebook page or a poorly written tweet could spell professional disaster.

What to do?
recent article from Computerworld details just how difficult it is for medical professionals to maintain an online presence without violating any privacy restrictions and protections established through HIPAA and similar legislation. Try as they might, physicians and patients alike can violate privacy agreements with the slightest slipup. You’d think that younger med students and physicians who are more familiar with the web might be less adept at discerning private data from admissible public statements, but they seem to be just as prone to mistakes as the elder generations of medical professionals trying their hand at social media. The best course of action is for physicians, nurses, and administrative staff to steer clear of social media usage altogether (or create a profile under an alias), but this is hardly practical advice in this digital age.

The article discusses a number of common sense guidelines that medical professionals should adhere to if they’re to maintain an online presence. Of course they shouldn’t disclose a patients name online, nor should they discuss an anonymous patient with a specific condition. Medical professionals should also refrain from treating popular social media tools as worthy substitutes for a formal consultation or a doctor’s visit—in fact they should avoid contacting patients altogether through these mediums if it can be helped.

If anything, it might be best for medical professionals to maintain two completely separate online personas—a short and sweet professional profile and an intensely private and protected personal profile. Keeping a distance from patients and the public in general is the only way to ensure that medical professionals avoid any inadvertent violations of HIPAA policy. It’s no easy feat, but it’s the only viable option if they want to avoid potential lawsuits and fines.

What do you think about social media usage among medical professionals?
What’s your take on physicians and other medical professionals taking to social media outlets to discuss medicine? Do you think that HIPAA is adequately equipped to deal with any privacy violations that occur online? Let me know!

By-line: Alvina Lopez is a freelance writer and blog junkie, who blogs about
accredited online colleges. She welcomes your comments at her email Id: alvina.lopez @gmail.com.

Jeff [10:32 AM]

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