Social media and patient privacy lessons ripped from the headlines

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You can't make this stuff up. Sometimes, the greatest lessons come straight from the headlines.

FierceHealthcare readers often write in with questions about patient privacy in the evolving world of social media. That includes our Fierce editors, who have questions of their own about the increasingly gray areas of what's right and legal.

With that in mind, FierceHealthcare examined what hospitals are doing to ensure patient information stays safe, especially as they and their patients use social media even more.

Notorious cases of patient privacy violations via social media

Remember these scandals in recent history?

> A certified nursing assistant at Kindred Transitional Care and Rehabilitation in Indiana took a photo of a paraplegic's butt after he had a bowel movement and posted it to Facebook in May 2011, telling her coworker, "This is too funny. I need to take a picture of this," RTV6, an ABC affiliate, previously reported. The medical facility fired her, and the nursing assistant faced a voyeurism charge.

> A physician at Westerly Hospital in Rhode Island recounted her emergency room experiences on Facebook in April 2011. Although the doctor didn't include the patient's name, she included enough detail about the patient's injuries that a third party was able to identify the patient. The incident led to a guilty charge of unprofessional conduct and $500 fine by the state medical board.

> Emergency nurses and staff from St. Mary's Medical Center in California posted a photo on Facebook of a stab victim, who died soon after the photo was taken, the Los Angeles Times reported in April 2010. Coworkers, as required, reported the event. The involved staff members were fired or disciplined, the Associated Press reported.

> Hospital employees at Tri City Medical Center in California in June 2010 allegedly used Facebook to discuss patients. Six registered nurses at the hospital were put on administrative leave, North County Times reported.

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"It's just Facebook. ... It's just a name out of millions and millions of names."
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> At Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in California, an employee in December 2011 posted a picture of a patient's medical record on his Facebook account, apparently to make fun of the woman, according to the Daily News of Los Angeles. He wrote, "Funny, but this patient came in to cure her VD and get birth control." When others scolded the employee, he responded, "People, it's just Facebook. ... It's just a name out of millions and millions of names. If some people can't appreciate my humor, then tough. And if you don't like it, too bad because it's my wall, and I'll post what I want to."