Privacy laws don't have to mean the end of social media for providers

Like many other aspects of information technology, social media has caught on much more slowly in healthcare than in other industries, notes Dan Pelino, a top IBM executive, in a recent post on The Health Care Blog. Pelino, general manager of IBM's healthcare and life sciences unit, says this is because of pervasive patient privacy laws. Still, he believes there are ways for healthcare providers to use social media without breaking any laws or violating anyone's privacy.

Just how perilous it can be for a physician to share patient information through social media is made clear by a recent episode in Westerly, R.I. A local hospital fired an ER doctor for posting information about a patient on Facebook, even though the patient wasn't named. Other doctors and nurses in California and Wisconsin have been sanctioned for similar behavior.

Pelino cites a few scenarios in which hospitals and doctors would not run afoul of privacy laws if they used certain types of social media applications. For example, he notes that a company called Actiance provides software that "archives and logs social content to help enterprises remain compliant with corporate policies and government regulations. With such software packages, auditors can search data from internal wikis, blogs, and chat sessions. They can tell who entered information, when it was entered and who was allowed to view it."

Other safe methods of using social media, in Pelino's view, include:

  • A doctor who specializes in a rare disease creating a wiki for his or her patients and colleagues in other cities to contribute to voluntarily.
  • Patients sharing links to websites and research through a process similar to Yahoo's Delicious service.
  • Hospitals setting up a blog to solicit comments on how to improve their service.

None of these possibilities is likely to involve consumer social media because of privacy regulations, notes Pelino. But the potential of social networking is too great for healthcare organizations to ignore, he concludes. 

To learn more:
- read Pelino's blog post
- visit the Actiance site 

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