Mobile and Social Media’s Impact on Compliance

As a regulated industry, many health care organizations have avoided the use of social media. Yet, as more and more consumers turn to online channels for health advice and information – 40% of consumers say that information found via social media affects the way they manage their health – providers are realizing that mobile and social media platforms actually provide an opportunity for HCPs and patients to communicate outside the office and potentially result in better treatment.

But as the health care industry increasingly embraces mobile and social media, the risks of non-compliance with rules and regulations also increase.

Mobile and social media has created some murky waters for HCPs and organizations to navigate. “Today’s health care providers face vital questions about privacy and doctor-patient relationships that simply did not exist before the social media explosion,” according to Arthur Caplan, PhD, head of the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center.

The key issues at the forefront are: 1) HCPs dispensing medical advice on social channels, even if it’s on their personal channel to a friend; and 2) patient privacy.

A medical student films a surgical procedure involving a patient and posts it to their Facebook page. The patient’s name is not mentioned and their face is unrecognizable, but other details about the procedure are included. The student’s intention is to help educate other students. In another incident, a group of nurses at a hospital set up a secret Facebook group to share patient updates and prepare each other for shift changes.

While no patient names were disclosed and the intent was to find an efficient and effective way to share information with others, these situations resulted in violations of patient data privacy because often times, a patient can still be identified from a description, location or time period. In fact, a 2008 analysis of HCP blogs found that more than 16% had posts that included sufficient information for patients to either identify their physicians or themselves.

It’s nearly impossible for organizations to turn their back on social media, especially when more than 40% of people factor social media presence into their decision when choosing a doctor, hospital or medical facility. And two-thirds of doctors report using social media for professional purposes. Not to mention the emergence of telemedicine or the introduction of the Apple Research Kit for use in clinical trials, both of which require data transmission over a smart phone.

So, how can health care organizations and HCPs leverage the powerful and personal nature of mobile and social media in an effective and compliant way?

  • By establishing a social media policy and guidelines for all employees and anyone managing a social channel on behalf of a health care organization. 26% of hospitals in the U.S. participate in social media, yet fewer than 30% of all health care organizations have developed written guidelines for social media use, according to the Institute for Health. As a general rule of thumb, HCPs should not provide any information regarding patients on social media platforms. This includes a physician casually dispensing medical advice to a friend on his/her personal Facebook page. This small favor could potentially result in a malpractice suit or allegation of practicing unlicensed medicine if the physician and friend reside in different states. Personal and professional social media accounts should be separate. Not only is this a good practice for HCPs, but it’s also good business sense for any industry. And lastly, maintain strong privacy settings on social accounts. Posting general health and wellness tips from a professional account should be encouraged and is a good use of social media. This can be a great (and compliant) way to connect with patients and enhance visibility of your and your organization’s brand.
  • By conducting ongoing monitoring of their social channels, as well as popular social channels in general to understand the conversation. Not only is it important to monitor employees’ activity, but this also provides an opportunity to find new ways to engage patients outside the office.
  • By providing a forum for HCPs to exchange information in a secure, HIPAA-compliant manner. It’s clear that HCPs want a way to connect with colleagues via digital channels, especially when they work on different floors or in different buildings. The emergence of Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) also means that HCPs within different organizations and across different health networks need a secure way to communicate about shared patients in order to provide the best care. Some physicians use HIPPA-compliant software, such as Tiger Text to discuss a patient case, while other hospitals use secure intranets so that nurses changing shifts can provide updates to each other.

The majority of HIPAA violations in recent years have occurred from HCPs mishandling patient information, many of which stem from unintentionally inappropriate social sharing. So, either guidelines don’t exist or there is a critical gap in the training employees are receiving. By putting the right protocols and guidelines in place, the power of social media can be harnessed, not feared, to improve quality of care and ultimately help improve patient outcomes.