In recent years many health care providers and managers have told me, time and again, that the health care world is accustomed to managing confidential patient information, and therefore doesn’t need much in the way of social media training and policy development. This week brings news that should make those folks sit up and take notice. A physician in Rhode Island, who was fired for a Facebook faux pas, has now been fined by the state medical board as well. The physician posted a little too much information on Facebook — information about a patient that, combined with other publicly available information, allowed third parties to identify the patient. The details of the story are available here and here.
The key takeaway from this story — and the Johnny-come-lately approach to health care social media taken by the Rhode Island hospital in question and the Boston teaching hospital that the Boston Globe turned to for comment — is that prevention is the best medicine.
Facebook and other social media are a fact of life, and cannot be ignored by health care providers and organizations. They can even be used as a force for good. As one example, take note of the recently-announced initiative by my colleague, Dr. Val, to start up a peer-reviewed tweetstream, @HealthyRT. At he very least, health care providers and organizations should be monitoring social media for mentions so that they can reach out, as may be necessary, to address health care and public relations issues.
HIPAA issues in the Rhode Island case led to sanctions — not by the federales or the state AG enforcing HIPAA — but by the medical board and the physician’s employer. These sanctions, and the harm they are ineffectually seeking to remedy, may have been avoided entirely by some preventive medicine: health care social media policy and procedures development through an inclusive process that would create a broad sense of ownership and responsibility, combined with greater understanding and sensitization, across clinical and non-clinical staff. Here’s hoping that health care provider organizations who are learning about these issues through the missteps of others are able to take proactive steps to avoid receiving this same kind of negative publicity themselves.
David Harlow writes at HealthBlawg, a nationally-recognized health care law and policy blog. He is an attorney and lectures extensively on health law topics to attorneys and to health care providers. Prior to entering private practice, he served as Deputy General Counsel of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.