June 2, 2015
Social media continues to change how we communicate. For better or worse, the technologies of today (and tomorrow) allow us to immediately share our thoughts, observations, and opinions. Like most professionals, however, healthcare providers should not let the ease of using social media change what they communicate. Especially when it comes to disclosing individually identifiable information protected under the Health Insurance Portability and Privacy Act (“HIPAA”).
HIPAA tells us that patient identifiable information belongs to the patient, and that disclosure of such information must meet certain criteria to ensure patient privacy and confidentiality, like proper consent or a care-related need. Certainly, the speed in which technology allows healthcare providers to communicate offers benefits to overall patient care. But the manner in which individually identifiable information is disclosed does not change the legal and ethical protection that information is afforded.
Put simply, communicating via social media is very similar to standing in a parking lot with a microphone. While you believe you are directing your social media communication to only a few people, others will see and hear it. Given that reality, healthcare providers who use social media must continue to use their common sense.
To assist in that effort, consider a general rule of thumb: if you would not feel comfortable disclosing certain information (like individually identifiable information under HIPAA) in a parking lot with a microphone in front of a bunch of strangers, you probably should not be disclosing that same information online. A few seconds of reflection before tweeting, posting, blogging, liking, linking, or commenting on-line may save you considerable embarrassment, disciplinary action, and legal exposure in the future.