HIPAA and Social Media - Put the Spleen Back Before Taking a Selfie

Posted by Capson Team on Oct 16, 2014 5:56:00 PM


Social Media and HIPAA - What You Need to Know

A Guide to Mitigating Risk and Remaining HIPAA Compliant in a Changing Landscape

In this day of age, social media and HIPAA complaince has been put under a spotlight. It is essential to understand the impact of HIPAA and social media in the healthcare world. Sharing a photo on Instagram or tweeting about a patient can lead to problems with social media and HIPAA violations. 

Learn about ethical issues of social media usage in healthcare and what you ened to know about social media and HIPAA.


A 20-year old student nurse has found herself in hot water. Recently, photos surfaced featuring her proudly posing with the spleen of a patient during a life-saving surgery. That wasn’t all the third-year trainee nurse posted: additional Instagram posts from the same surgery included the patient’s mangled hand, plus comments regarding the (in the student’s own words) “275lbs schizo” that “jumped from the eighth floor.”

At this time, the student’s fate is uncertain, but yours doesn’t have to be. 


If reading the above made you uncomfortable – that’s a good sign, because as a medical malpractice insurance company, it makes us painfully uncomfortable as well. There are serious ethical issues at play, and this is the type of behavior that leads to trouble.

Let’s go over another example.

In Dallas, Texas, a physician was recently sued over the outcome of a deadly surgery involving a 61-year-old patient. The patient was undergoing a corrective procedure to fix an irregular heartbeat. Ten hours after her routine procedure began, she was pronounced dead.

The anesthesiologist, one of several named on the suit, was accused of “distracted doctoring,” a term coined by the University of Rochester to describe physician negligence involving electronic devices.

Once on trial, he willingly admitted to texting and reading his iPad during procedures, a common activity some doctors and nurses partake in. During the trial, multiple Facebook posts surfaced confirming the allegations, many of them with less than favorable mentions of patients or patient information, a clear HIPAA violation.

One of his posts read as following, “After enduring the s@#$%t Friday I’ve had in a while, I just found out my next patient has lice. Freakin’ lice. I didn’t even know they still made those. Help.” His fate is pending.

While these are undoubtedly extreme examples, the risks of combining healthcare and social media are greater than one would think. The media may be interested in stories like these, but here, we aim to debunk the negative reputation physicians often associate with social media. Our goal at Capson is to educate readers on the risks and benefits involved with social media and equip them with risk mitigation techniques. Together, we can take preventative measures to reduce your practice’s chance of being involved in a social media-related medical malpractice debacle.


 Social Media & Healthcare: To Tweet, or not to Tweet?

After reading the examples above, it’s no surprise why healthcare providers can be reluctant to adopt social media due to the risks involved. It’s a shame, because, when used properly, social media can contribute to improved patient and community outreach,  giving physicians that utilize it an edge with today’s tech-savvy consumers.

 As of 2014, there are 1.28 billion active monthly Facebook users. Furthermore, a study from the National Research Corporation found that 41% of nearly 23,000 respondents said that they use social media to research healthcare decisions, with nearly all those respondents – 94% - saying that Facebook was their primary source. The bottom line is this: if you choose to ignore social media, you’re ignoring potential customers.

There’s more ways to connect than ever. Physicians are communicating with their community through blogs, micro-blogs, file-sharing sites, integrated social media, WebMD, and even ratings-based websites.

With power, however, comes responsibility. Electronic devices are easier to access than ever; the ubiquity of social media may have dulled our ability to correctly measure our usage habits. It’s up to physicians and other staff members to show restraint amidst temptations to tweet, check email, Facebook, text, etc. The burden also falls on physicians to ensure all communication is HIPAA compliant, whether they are engaging with patients or otherwise.


In today’s rapidly changing environment, it’s tough to stay up to speed with new types of social media, and even more challenging to navigate proper ways to utilize them for your practice. When it comes to social media and healthcare, what was once black and white has shifted to a highly debated shade of gray – the color of potential ethical and legal issues.

Gray seems harmless enough. Surely you would never end up in the news like the doctor and nurse above – you’re a good person, a caring doctor. Unfortunately, cases like this are becoming more and more common. 

There are advantages and disadvantages of social media and healthcare. In the next section, we’ll teach you how to harness the power of social media in ways that directly benefit your practice and most importantly, help you protect your patients.

Social Media: The Benefits

It’s more than just a marketing and public relations tool. When used responsibly, social media can give your practice an edge over your competitors. Social media allows an avenue for your solo or group practice to:

  • Create and engage a community of willing participants
  • Promote organizational news and services
  • Share general news
  • Organize community events
  • Broadcast staff and patient success stories*
  • Thoughtfully manage customer outreach and engagement
  • Respond to patient reviews in an appropriate manner
  • Participate in local disaster management

*Sharing patient success stories requires patient consent.

The best way to ensure your practice has full access to these benefits is to lay a solid foundation for your social media usage. Below are some hard and fast rules to follow.

Capson’s Best Practices: Mitigating Social Media Risks bestpractices

Now that we’ve established what an important asset social media can be for your practice, we’ll provide you with tips to mitigate your risks and make the most of embracing social media.

  1. Adhere to your employer’s social media and privacy policies and procedures. If your practice does not currently have one, implement one.
  2. Don’t post anything when angry, sleep deprived, or otherwise impaired.
  3. Read and understand all terms of use for every platform and website in which you participate.
  4. Assume that whatever you post will be visible, permanently accessible to all seekers, and available for reposting regardless of your privacy settings.
  5. Avoid making disparaging comments about people or organizations.
  6. Don’t give clinical advice online.
  7. Never discuss patients. Be aware that removing patient identifiers isn’t adequate and that patients still have privacy rights even if they’ve posted information about themselves online.
  8. Never take or post photos of patients and post them on social media without the patient’s explicit consent. Get the consent in writing.

If you are part of a group practice, it’s important to convey all of the above with your team. The best way to do this is through a social media policy. 

A Social Media Policy

A social media policy is a well-defined, widely distributed company policy that addresses the use of social media networking sites and appropriate conduct for both work and personal networks.

  • A social media plan outlines the organization’s goals and intended audience in using social media.
  • It mentions which staff may participate in the organization’s official social media.
  • It includes social media in HIPAA privacy training, including information on HIPAA in social media training.
  • It contains a reminder that users must be honest and respectful toward other users.
  • It has the flexibility to adapt to the emerging social media landscape (one you won’t have to constantly update).
  • It contains the names of employees other than hiring managers who will screen candidates’ social media profiles during the hiring process.

Capson Best Practices: 3 Ways to Make Your Policy More Effective social_media_cloud

  • Don’t just provide employees with social networking policies – require that each employee acknowledge receiving and reading the policies.
  • Include specific examples of the types of statements posted on social media networks that could lead to a HIPAA violation.
  • Extend existing compliance policies to explicitly include the use of social networking sites and other internet activities.

If you’re looking for a good starting point, we recommend the following tips from the American Medical Association (AMA):

  • Physicians should be cognizant of standards of patient privacy/confidentiality.
  • Physicians should use privacy settings to safeguard their personal information, however, they should realize that privacy settings are never foolproof.
  • Physicians who choose to interact with patients on the Internet must maintain appropriate boundaries of the patient/physician relationship.
  • Physicians should separate their personal and professional online content.
  • Physicians who see unprofessional content posted by peers are encouraged to bring that content to the attention of the individual.

After reading this, we hope we’ve equipped you with clear guidelines for social media practices and risk mitigation. We hope we have also sparked your excitement regarding the advantages of social media.

If you apply these practical tips and guidelines, not only will you be more likely to prevent social media-related medical malpractice claims and lawsuits, but you can better promote your practice and improve lines of communication between patients.

And the next time you plan on posing for a picture – please, don’t do it with a spleen.

Did you know we visit practices nationwide to present our “Social Media & Healthcare” training, along with a brief Q&A for physicians and staff? The educational presentation is free of cost.

We would love to come visit your practice next.


Capson Physicians Insurance Company is a national provider of medical malpractice insurance, specializing in providing solo and group practices with extraordinary service and protection.



Tags: Medical Malpractice Claim Prevention