An increasing number of physicians are venturing onto the web, and, in particular, into social media. Recently, my client Dr. M was advised by a consultant to update his practice’s website, create a Facebook page for his practice and join Twitter. The marketing consultant cautioned Dr. M that there are legal concerns for health care providers associated with the Internet and social media. While social media can be a beneficial marketing tool, it is important for physicians to have in place a specific media policy that addresses the proper ways to use this outreach both in and outside the workplace.
Explore this issue:May 2011
A website is an excellent and relatively inexpensive avenue to use to brand your practice. When potential patients are looking for a physician in a particular specialty and in a specific location, many turn first to Internet search engines. Whether the search uses terms like “ENT and Dallas” or “Dr. Jack Smith, Otolaryngology and Dallas,” you want your website to pop up and be viewed by the searcher. At a minimum, a practice website should include the four W’s:
- Who (biographical information about the physicians employed by the practice);
- What (the practice’s specialty);
- Why (your opportunity to shine, by telling potential patients why they should select your practice); and
- Where (address, telephone number, e-mail).
Tweeting, Blogging, Posting
The terms “Facebook,” “Twitter” and “blog” are words no longer spoken only by teenagers. These social media outlets offer free ways health care entities and physicians can use to disseminate information and market to a new audience.
In addition to the concerns described above and in a previous article (see, “Advertise with Caution: State laws restrict how physicians can market themselves,” ENT Today, December 2010), physicians should be aware of HIPAA privacy laws when using social media. Even an inadvertent disclosure of a patient’s protected health information through social media can be problematic. In April 2010, for example, a physician was reprimanded by Rhode Island’s medical board and lost her hospital privileges for writing about her clinical experiences on Facebook, according to a consent order from the board. Even though the physician had no intention of revealing confidential patient information, one of her Facebook posts revealed just enough detail to allow others in the community to identify one of the patients.
Another aspect to consider is that patients often use social media to express their positive and negative views on experiences with a physician. Some of my physician clients have expressed concern that patient blogging websites are among the first few listings on search engine result pages. If the posts describe positive experiences with the physician, then the physician just obtained free publicity. Negative posts can be very disheartening for the physician, however, and could keep a potential patient from becoming an actual patient.
Social Media Policy
In light of the risks associated with social media, it is important for practices to establish a social media policy that must be abided by the practice’s physicians and staff members. Your policy should outline what constitutes acceptable use (if any) of personal social media during office hours.
For social media use on behalf of the practice, it is imperative that the following three W’s be outlined in the social media policy:
- Who is permitted to post or tweet material on the social media websites? Is there a person designated as the practice’s poster or tweeter?
- What material can and should be posted by the party or parties authorized to do so? For example, the policy must identify how the practice will respond to a medical question posted on its Facebook page. From a liability perspective, I do not recommend providing medical advice via social media outlets.
- Where will the practice be posting? The policy should explicitly state which social media avenues the practice can use and maintain. For example, if the practice decides to maintain a Facebook page but not a MySpace presence, the policy must say so.
Additionally, the policy should inform employees of the risks associated with disclosing patient and other practice-related information like office gossip or reimbursement issues on social media networks, whether the sites are being used personally or on behalf of the practice, and should delineate ways to avoid unlawful disclosures. One way to do so is to require that all material posted on behalf of the practice be approved by a committee rather than a single person. This will help avoid HIPAA violations and inappropriate disclosures. Further, the policy should explain the consequences of noncompliance by employees and emphasize personal responsibility and good judgment.
Now is the time to review your practice’s existing policies and documents. A social media policy can be incorporated into your existing employee handbook, or you may elect to have a freestanding policy.
If you haven’t already been bitten by the social media bug, this is the time to jump on the bandwagon. Your competitors are probably already riding the wave. Be cautious with your social media involvement, and establish a social media policy to avoid inadvertently and unintentionally violating the law.
Steven M. Harris, Esq., is a nationally recognized health care attorney and a member of the law firm McDonald Hopkins, LLC. Steve may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.