When social media violates patient privacy

Despite a hospital's best efforts to protect patient privacy, sometimes it only takes one person with a smartphone to take a video and upload it to YouTube. Then all bets are off.

We recently stumbled upon footage of an intoxicated man in our trauma center that was videotaped by another patient. The good news is the video put our staff members in an incredibly positive light, being caring and compassionate. The bad news is the patient's privacy was violated.

And so began our efforts to get the video taken down. First, I sent a message to the user who posted the video, noting that it was violating patient privacy and asked that the video be taken down. We received no response, as anticipated.


At the same time, we got our legal and risk management departments involved. The first step was to call the local police, who said they couldn't help. Next, a member of the legal team contacted Google directly to request that the video be removed. Its response? No. The site would not take it down. Google didn't feel the video was violating its user agreement, so it didn't matter if it was a violation of our policy, or what we felt was a violation of a patient's privacy.

The only way we could pursue this was to go through very expensive litigation, which we felt was not justified or warranted. We were disappointed, but not entirely surprised.

In this day and age with social media as prevalent as it is, it's important to know that you can take all the steps you think necessary, but there's always the possibility of a breach of privacy. It's one thing when it's a member of your staff--that can be addressed. But when it comes to the general public, you are at the mercy of their discretion, and that's not a safe bet.

Another lesson from this real-life tale is it's still imperative to have a social media policy in place. It can help you make decisions about how to respond to negative posts, and it can guide your staff when they're posting to social networks. If you haven't written one already, there are plenty from hospitals to review here on Ed Bennett's blog

It's also a reminder to have Google alerts and other monitoring tools in place to catch these mentions of your institution. Even if you can't get the response you would like, you can at least comment to show that you are aware of what is being said about you. And that is a necessity today, because even if you aren't talking about yourself in the social media world, you can be sure that others are.

Have you had any breaches of privacy in social media at your institution? How did you deal with them?

Nancy Cawley Jean is a senior media relations officer for the Lifespan health system in Rhode Island, managing social media for five hospitals and a women's medicine practice.