Health attorney advises providers to set clear policies on social media

In Part II of a blog post on how providers should approach social media, attorney and healthcare expert David Harlow covers professional responsibility, malpractice liability, "daily deal" websites and social media policies and procedures.

As in Part I, Harlow starts from the assumption that, since many patients use Facebook, Twitter and other social media, it's incumbent upon healthcare professionals to start engaging in these forms of communication. Recognizing that the majority of physicians are concerned about the liability aspects of social media, he re-affirms that "patient care should not be provided in open social forums."

However, he adds, "appropriate disclaimers on blogs, Facebook pages, YouTube channel pages and the like should be sufficient protection for providers seeking to use these tools for sharing of general advice and information." Moreover, they should not hesitate to use social media to communicate "lifesaving information" to a patient when there is no other way.

Some providers--mostly nonphysicians such as dentists and chiropractors--use Groupon, Living Social and other "daily deal" websites to attract patients, Harlow notes. He warns professionals who employ these kinds of sites to be aware that they may raise legal issues such as illegal fee-splitting, illegal kickbacks in exchange for referrals, contractual bans on offering discounts to plan members and state laws on gift certificates.

Having covered these topics and the others mentioned in Part I, Harlow concludes, "Despite the legal landscape, it is possible for a healthcare provider to develop a robust social media program." Here are a few of the steps that providers should take, in Harlow's view:

  • Develop social media policies that respect legal and regulatory limits
  • Establish clear guidelines that allow staff to engage with patients online without requiring clearance from providers
  • Set limits and expectations for people who come to an organization's web properties so that they know that their posts may be taken down if they violate the organization's policies
  • Establish internal policies for staffers who tweet or post on their own so that they don't embarrass the organization
  • Train staff in policies and retrain them when the policies are updated, which should be at least once a year.

To learn more:
- read Part I of the social media blog post
- read Part II of the post