VA social media policy outlines interaction, patient privacy protection practices

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has formalized its burgeoning social media empire by announcing a policy on how VA employees should use these online platforms. According to a press release, the policy "allows the Department and its employees to leverage emerging platforms that enhance communication, stakeholder outreach, and information exchange."

The new policy explains how employees may apply to create a social media site, describes the proper modes of interaction with veterans, and provides guidance on how to protect the privacy of patient data. Among other things, VA employees are prohibited from using social media to contact veterans online for official business.

On the other hand, the policy encourages veterans to use social media to seek information from the VA. "Veterans should have consistent and convenient access to reliable VA information real time using social media--whether on a smartphone or a computer," Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki said in the press release. "They also should be able to communicate directly with appropriate VA employees electronically."

VA has been using social media sites since 2009. It now has over 100 Facebook pages, more than 50 Twitter feeds, two blogs, a YouTube channel, and a Flickr page.  VA's Facebook pages have 293,000 users, and its Twitter feeds have 53,000 followers. By the end of the year, the Department expects to have an active Facebook page and Twitter feed for all 152 VA Medical Centers.

In addition, VA has posted more than 300 videos on YouTube and more than 9,000 photos on Flickr, which together have been viewed more than 1.1 million times.

The policy is designed to ensure that VA employees use social media in appropriate and legal ways. Besides addressing the public purposes of social media, it also describes how VA staff may use these online tools to "streamline processes and foster productivity improvements...Web-based collaboration tools enable widely dispersed facilities and VA staffs to more effectively collaborate and share information to achieve greater productivity, efficiency, and innovation."

To learn more:
- read the VA press release
- see the policy statement (.pdf) 

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