Social Media and HIPAA Compliance: What Medical Professionals Should Know

September 13, 2017
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Social media is fast becoming one of the most impactful marketing channels for medical professionals; however, HIPAA regulations must be taken into account.

More than ever before, medical professionals are using social media every day in both their personal and professional lives. And of course this isn’t a bad thing: physicians, nurses, and other practitioners are in a unique position to engage and educate current patients and others in search of treatment. However, when used incorrectly, social media can be a veritable minefield in regards to HIPAA regulations for patient confidentiality. So in the interest of keeping those tweets flowing, let’s run through four easy ways to maintain compliance with these regulations.

1) Don’t Talk About Patients (Even When it’s Subtle)

HIPAA regulations for patient confidentiality may seem complicated, but they all essentially boil down to one key point: don’t share your patients’ personal information. Few medical professionals would post something as obviously problematic as “John Smith from Cherry Street came in last night with such-and-such medical condition,” but that’s far from the only way to incur a violation. Rather than taking the risk of accidentally broadcasting protected information like specific appointment times and diagnoses, avoid the issue altogether by never referring to an actual case or visit.

That said, medical professionals should absolutely post interesting and relevant information on their professional social media accounts. Just be sure to always keep things in broad terms — talk about specific conditions or treatment options, not specific patients.

2) Don’t Like, Share, Retweet, or Regram Your Patients’ Posts

Even if you don’t share the information yourself, it’s still possible for a physician to breach his or her patient’s confidentiality. One way to do so is by engaging with a specific patient on any social platform. Even if your patient chooses to post his or her medical information in a public forum, sharing this post with your own network could land you in hot water.

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The easiest way to avoid this issue is by doing something that’s fairly intuitive: create separate accounts for your professional and personal activities.

3) Don’t Post Pictures of Patients or Their Documentation

When to comes to HIPAA compliance, one key mistake that should always be avoided is posting pictures of real-life patients. Even if you’re celebrating something as meaningful as a patient’s recovery from a serious illness or injury, sharing a photo of their likeness still counts in HIPAA’s eyes as a forbidden personal identifier. Another thing to keep in mind when posting photos from around the office or clinic: a patient’s files can accidentally get caught in the background. Always triple-check that your image is free of any potentially confidential paperwork or other materials.

It may sound easier to rule out photos of your workplace altogether, but warm, engaging imagery bolsters patient trust in your medical brand — in some cases increasing conversion rates by as much as 95%. Just be smart about the photos you share with your network.

4) Don’t Send Confidential Information Through Direct Messages

Switching over to direct messages might seem like an easy loophole in all of the regulations outlined above, as the interface of any social media platform would have you think that such messages are private and confidential. However, doing so would risk violating another one of HIPAA’s major tenets: the Security Rule, which mandates that all electronic protected health information (ePHI) is stored in such a way that it is secure from potential data breaches, leaks, or any other form of unwanted disclosure. Most social media messaging services do not meet HIPAA’s standard for compliance with this rule, and thus they should never be used to share patient data or health records with colleagues or even the patients themselves.

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Luckily, a number of medical industry apps — such as DrFirst’s Backline — offer secure messaging platforms that are in compliance with HIPAA’s Security Rule. So keep the sharing away from Twitter DMs and Facebook Messenger and stick to the software and services that guarantee both compliance and conversions.