Focused On Health Care Law

Part II: the perils of social media for doctors

by | Jul 22, 2021 | HIPAA |

Regular readers of our Michigan Health Care Legal Blog will undoubtedly recall a recent post detailing potential pitfalls for physicians on social media. The post included useful information about going viral, violating patient privacy and advice for how to deal with patients’ “friend” requests on Facebook.

In this post, we’ll delve into the dispensing of specific medical advice, and making unprofessional comments and posting photos of unprofessional behavior on social media.

Specific medical advice

When you post general comments about treatments or conditions, there will often be responses asking for advice about their specific case. A reply or back-and-forth comments could be a HIPAA violation. It’s also possible that a reply could be construed as a physician-patient relationship.

The doctor who wrote a Medscape article about social media advised physicians who get requests for advice to urge the person to visit your practice.

It might also be a good idea to include on your social media pages a boilerplate statement that you won’t comment on social media on any individual’s specific case.

Unprofessional behavior

There are doctors who have made unprofessional comments or shared photos of unprofessional behavior on social media platforms. They don’t seem to understand that patients and employers can view the posts and that there can be serious consequences for flaunting unprofessional conduct.

A 2017 study of U.S. urology residency graduates found that 40 percent had potentially objectionable content on their Facebook pages, including profanity, inebriation, sexually suggestive photos or on-the-job unprofessional behavior.

The Medscape article proposes two solutions: 1) Don’t post this kind of material. 2) Use separate accounts for your personal and professional lives.

Unprofessional statements

Social media thrives on strong opinions on politics, racial issues, gender, religion and much more. While bold statements can make a person popular on social media, they can also lead to firings and resignations if a practice or health system deems them inappropriate.

Similar outcomes can befall physicians who use social media to diss patients. In the aforementioned study of 271 blogs, about 20 percent contained negative comments about patients, including one in which a physician described a patient as “stupid, lazy, selfish.”

That’s the kind of comment that can result in overwhelmingly negative patient backlash and have unfavorable career consequences.