Social Media Health: Does Transparency and 'Social' Trump Your Privacy?

There are some health care professionals who refuse to engage in social media, and there are others who have mastered it. And yet there are some who just don't understand it.
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Social media rules are pretty simple. Be transparent, be authentic, be yourself, and be engaging. While these social media rules seem simple, do these rules apply to everyone who engages in social media? Even health care professionals? What happens when their "social" activity includes postings and uploads that might not be so professional?

There are some health care professionals who refuse to engage in social media, and there are others who have mastered it. And yet there are some who just don't understand it.

There's a photo of a clinician on Facebook holding a cigarette.

It may not seem like much, but when it's a clinician at an academic medical center with a Facebook account that reveals place of employment, that changes the game.

Since the clinician with an open Facebook account clearly shows an image holding a cigarette (okay, not puffing on it, but the message is clear), with a status update that says: "Plenty of pints, cigs and political blogs at my fingertips for the SOTU after a long, long day... can't get better for a policy junkie"), what message does this send?

Is it appropriate for his/her patients and colleagues to see an image of him/her holding a cigarette? Since this clinician revealed an affiliation with an employer, there's a connection and a responsibility with the academic medical center.

"The issue isn't limited to tobacco use. It could be anything from use of alcohol or other substances to hate speech or degrading or defaming a colleague or other individual in an online forum," said David Harlow, Esq., health care attorney and consultant at The Harlow Group, LLC in Boston.

(While Facebook is an open book for all to see -- especially when an account is open to everyone -- I chose not to disclose the name of the clinician or institution. I'm writing this post to illustrate how important words and photos are and once you associate yourself with a place of employment, you're responsible to uphold high standards of that academic institution, health system or any company. Additionally, academic institutions and health systems need clear and specific guidelines for their employees.)

Here are a few questions to consider:

  • Since the clinician is affiliated with an institution, is he/she misrepresenting them because his/her social media activities are personal?

  • Is the clinician damaging the brand or reputation of the institution?
  • Does the clinician have a professional obligation to portray himself/herself as a professional?
  • What are the ethical responsibilities of the clinician?
  • If a clinician is clearly using social media for personal use, should they be banned from including their place of employment?
  • While the institution in question does implement social media guidelines, the guidelines are sparse. One section requires clinicians to "Maintain the professionalism standards of your profession..." I don't think you would see this clinician smoking in front of his/her patients, so why should we see him/her online with a tobacco product in hand?

    "Any health care institution that wishes to control its online image needs to consider carefully the role of social media guidelines for employees' personal accounts, used on personal time," said Harlow. "The institution may want to codify a zero-tolerance policy for certain content posted in any account which identifies the account owner as an employee or affiliate, whether or not the account is an official channel of the institution."

    3 Steps to Use When Engaging in Social Media

    1. Decide the reason you are engaging in social media. Is it for personal or professional reasons? If you include the name of the place you work, you need to uphold professional standards. Be careful what you post.

    2. Know you company's social media guidelines. Isn't it your responsibility to know them?

    Here are few examples from health care organizations:

  • Cleveland Clinic (directs employees to Media and Social Networking Policy on the Intranet)
  • Ed Bennett provides a list of health care social media polices here. (Side note: Some of the social media guidelines in place are very vague and do not clearly address issues... It may benefit the academic medical centers and health systems to implement solid, clear and specific guidelines.)

    3. Use a disclaimer in your social networking arena if you include your employer.

    Here's a good example from Mount Sinai: "Where your connection to Mount Sinai is apparent, make it clear that you are speaking for yourself and not on behalf of Mount Sinai. A disclaimer, such as, 'The views expressed on this [blog; website] are my own and do not reflect the views of my employer,' may be appropriate."

    Here's another good example from the Mayo Clinic: "The views expressed on this [blog; website] are my own and do not reflect the views of my employer." Consider adding this language in an "about me" section of your blog or social media profile.

    Please take a look here at the Mayo Clinic's Social Media Policy for Employees.

    Bottom line

    Health care professionals active in social networks need to understand that information and images they post may interfere with their credibility. Also, they need to be familiar with their institution's social media policies. It seems that employers need to take a more active role in their social media efforts and develop solid, clear and concise social media polices.

    Health care professionals understand the importance of protecting their patients' privacy under HIPAA rules and regulations. Isn't it just as important for clinicians to maintain their privacy?

    Or does transparency and "social" trump your privacy?

    Your turn

    We would love to hear your insightful thoughts in the comment section below.

    • What do you think about a clinician posting an image with a cigarette?

  • Does it change the image of the clinician?
  • Since social media is about transparency, is it his/her right to upload any pictures and post any updates?
  • Does the clinician have a responsibility to the organization?
  • Is it his/her responsibility to know the social media guidelines?
  • Does your institution have social media guidelines for employees?
  • Should social media guidelines have a zero-tolerance policy for posting personal information that could be misconstrued as damaging to the institution?
  • Are you aware of your institutions social media guideline policies?
  • As always, thank you for your very valuable time.

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