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Social Media Create Patient Privacy Minefield

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media, September 28, 2009

If your healthcare organization doesn't have a policy on employee conduct for online communications and social media, it should. Consider a study in last week's Journal of the American Medical Association which found that some students at 60% of the 78 medical schools surveyed had posted unprofessional or inappropriate content online and on social media like Twitter, MySpace, and Facebook.

A breakdown showed that violations of patient confidentiality were reported by 13% of the schools; use of profanity by 52% of schools; frankly discriminatory language by 48%; depiction of intoxication by 39%; and sexually suggestive material by 39%.

No doubt, some of these troubling findings can be attributable to—but not excused by—the relatively young age of the medical students, their inherent Generation Y comfort with online communications, their failure to understand their newly bequeathed gravitas and responsibility as healers, and their inability to comprehend that their risqué comments are in the public domain once they hit the "send" button.

I don't believe this improper use of social media is limited to medical school students. I suspect that normally sober, older, wiser, and dedicated veteran healthcare professionals might occasionally exercise poor judgment and offer online posts that defame colleagues or competitors, or—even worse—identify or provide disparaging remarks about patients.

Privacy rights advocates say your healthcare organization really should emphasize the importance of online discretion.

"You certainly can't control the conduct but you can educate," says Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a San Diego-based consumer advocacy group. "The guidelines need to be the same for both verbal communications and communications via social networking because the consequences to the privacy of the patient are the same."

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