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How RNs Can Avoid Pitfalls of Social Media

Analysis  |  By Jennifer Thew RN  
   November 07, 2017

While questionable social media use makes headlines, nurses can use social media tools in ways to further their professional knowledge.

When I read about the recent incident where Jacksonville Naval Hospital staff members shared unprofessional behavior on Snapchat—including flipping off an infant and referring to newborns as "mini-Satans"—my reaction was, "Don't people know better by now?"

While some may be quick to blame social media for these lapses in professionalism, Robert Fraser, MN, RN, a primary care nurse, author, and digital health strategist from Toronto, Ontario, Canada, points out that bad behavior did not start with the advent of social media. Social media just makes it more visible.

"Professional misconduct is not new or [an] unusual thing," he said. "But social media incidents, I think, tend to get more coverage for a number of reasons, [in part], because the evidence is left behind related to the incidents."

And thanks to technology, that evidence can reach, and affect, a larger group of people than it would in the pre-Internet world.

"Healthcare professionals…are not always paying attention to the opportunities, as well as the risk of potential harm, that can come from [social media]," Fraser says. "I want people to understand the risks as well as the potential."

Fraser offers his thoughts on how nurses can avoid the pitfalls of social media as well as ways to use it to positively affect the nursing profession.

Clear Policies Needed

Nurse leaders and healthcare organizations need to set clear policies regarding the use of social media.

"What I encourage organizations to do is a) make sure they have a policy and b) that it's something they revisit over time," Fraser advises.

Some expectations, such as privacy rules including HIPAA, may already exist within other policies.

Fraser says there is a hierarchy of professional practice obligations and social media connects with all of them.

The highest level of the hierarchy pertains to laws, such as HIPAA, or other federal privacy legislation.

Organizations and professional organizations, such as state boards, also have their own rules and regulations regarding privacy.

Your Personal Brand

Before a nurse decides to post something on a social media channel, he or she should think about how that tool ties into professional practice.

"People should make sure they are really thinking through what behavior they're doing and how they're going forward to record that," he says. "Nurses need to be aware of the professional reputation they're creating for themselves and how they're using online tools. Social media does provide new opportunities and new ways of approaching how we communicate, but nurses need to reflect on their professional identity and their professional expectations within the workplace."

While it may be tempting to vent to your Facebook friends about a bad shift or complain about a difficult coworker, nurses need to reflect upon why they feel the need to post this type of information on a social media platform.

"Nurses need to be aware that they aren't using it for therapeutic purposes that they need a counselor for," he says. "Or a colleague who understands the unit dynamic to talk to about those issues."

Promote Positive Behavior

Rather than restricting employees' access to social media while they are in the facility (as some organizations do) nurse leaders can model positive use of these tools.

Fraser knows of a hospital that has used Facebook as an additional way of communicating information posted on the intranet or by email. They have also shared photos of nurses (taken with permission and without sharing identifying patient information) to highlight the work staff is doing.

"They were encouraging nurses to follow so that when they were looking at news updates and seeing what might be going on in their social world, they may also be able to engage around the positive professional behaviors that the organization wanted to endorse," he says.

Social media is also an excellent way for nurses to connect with other RNs across the country and internationally. For example, the Free Open Access Nursing Education community is using technology and social media to provide nurses with an opportunity to relevant healthcare topics in real time and to share best practices, new research, and information relevant to the profession.

Jennifer Thew, RN, is the senior nursing editor at HealthLeaders.

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