Violating patient privacy: A social media 'never event'

What professionals should post on social media is always tricky, and physicians should be especially careful with what they tweet and post to Facebook, according to a survey of state medical boards--not only for their reputations, but also because it can violate patient privacy.

The biggest problem with physicians using social media was misrepresenting credentials or treatment outcomes, with 81 percent of those surveyed saying they believe that type of behavior would be cause for an investigation, MedPage Today reported. Seventy-nine percent were concerned about physicians inappropriately contacting patients or using their photos, a group at the University of California-San Francisco found.

"These violations clearly parallel common offline violations, as well as established statutory and professional codes," and should "never happen" for physicians, the UCSF group wrote today in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Other categories state boards had concerns about, after patient privacy and misrepresentation of credentials and treatment outcomes, were depictions of alcohol intoxication and discriminatory speech.

Patient privacy was a main issue in the survey, with scenarios such as patient images being posted to a website without consent and use of online dating services to interact with a patient eliciting the need for an investigation, according to survey responses.

The Federation of State Medical Boards and the American Medical Association have put out guidelines for professionalism in social media, but neither has drawn up what possible consequences for violations could be, the group said.

Violations of patient privacy are prevalent in the healthcare technology sphere, with breaches ranging from hackers stealing devices to medical students complaining about HIPAA on their Facebook walls. The need for new rules with the advent of new technology is clear as the industry gets used to electronic health records and burgeoning social media use.

In December 2012, more than 1,500 hospitals were using some combination of social media channels, including posting photos on Facebook--which can be a great way to engage a community, but runs into privacy issues.

To learn more:
- read the study
- here's the MedPage Today article