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The perils of social media for doctors

On Behalf of | Jul 21, 2021 | HIPAA |

Social media is as ubiquitous for Michigan physicians as it is for everyone else. Some people wake up to Twitter and go to sleep with Facebook. In between, they steal away moments with Snapchat, Instagram, Reddit, Pinterest and others.

Doctors need to be especially careful on social media, always mindful of protecting patient privacy and when sharing medical information, always presenting absolutely correct info.

Some physicians stay away from social media because of its risk of potential disaster. But a California doctor wrote in Medscape that you don’t need to abandon social media. You simply need to exercise discretion and understand its risks.

Going viral

Social media amplifies your words and images. A stray comment can go viral and reach hundreds of thousands of people (and even more). Mistakes and misstatements are difficult to undo. You can take down an ill-advised Facebook comment and delete a cringe-worthy tweet, but both can live on after being shared or in screenshots.

Think through your comments before posting them. There can sometimes be a heavy price to pay for being clever, bold or controversial.

Violations of patient privacy

Social media has a nearly infinite supply of opportunities for doctors to violate patient privacy. Examples: citing patients’ cases on the practice’s website, crowdsourcing a patient’s diagnosis with colleagues and posting photos that inadvertently reveal a patient’s face or medical information.

A study of 271 blogs by physicians and nurses found that 16 percent revealed sufficient information for patients to identify themselves or their doctors.

Privacy can be violated without using the patient’s name. Patients can be identified by references to particular events (car accident, shooting, etc.), a rare condition or by mentioning care at a certain hospital or unit.

Patients’ “friend” requests

The Medscape article advises doctors to have two Facebook pages. One for family and friends and one for patients and the public. This arrangement can keep the two parts of your life separate. Similar arrangements can be made on Twitter, Instagram and others.

We will write more about the potential pitfalls for doctors on social media in an upcoming post to our Michigan Health Care Legal Blog. Please check back.