hipaa and social mediaWhile social media has become common practice, HIPAA and social media are not necessarily associated in the eyes of many professionals. In most industries, regulating social media use isn’t a severe issue, but healthcare professionals must take extra precautions to prevent potential social media HIPAA violations.

Whether you have employees who post about their workday on Facebook or your practice uses social media for marketing purposes, professionals should be aware of potential HIPAA implications.

HIPAA Policies and Procedures

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) provides extensive guidance on HIPAA and social media use. A quick way to determine if you are engaging in HIPAA compliant social media is to go through the HHS Social Media Policies Checklist to see if you follow HHS standards.

Social Media Policies

The use of social media must follow current standards to prevent HIPAA violations. Improperly trained employees can expose your organization. A clear set of social media policies can help avoid common social media mistakes.

Endorsing Others on Social Media Can Be Problematic

Liking, following, or friending an entity may give off the wrong signal. It is advisable that you first evaluate what your action might convey to your audience or more specifically, your caseload. For example, donating money to a favorite charity and then allowing the donation process to post a notice on Facebook can inform the population that you serve of your political persuasions, religious beliefs, or other personal issues. While this is not a problem for some types of therapists, it can be a problem for others. Any activity involving third parties should be carefully assessed because even tacit endorsement can easily be misinterpreted.

The HHS Social Media Policies Checklist checklist suggests that organizations take the time to determine entities that are appropriate to follow/like. HHS guidance states that in many cases, a follow/like may convey the following:

  1. Following an entity may imply endorsing the entity as a whole
  2. Simply liking a post may imply only endorsing the posted content

However, how your audience interprets any of your actions on social media is purely subjective and varies from one person to another. Forethought and caution are advised.

Comment Moderation

According to HHS guidance, the submission of user-generated content or comments is recommended but should be moderated to remove: 

  • Partisan political views 
  • Commercial endorsements 
  • Racist, offensive, unlawful or discriminatory content or language
  • Communications of any type with clients or patients

Copyrights

Some applications and sites have specific guidelines for using trademarked images. Written permission from sites or other sources is required at all times. It also is important to note that some attorneys dedicate themselves to finding unwitting people who use the images commonly available through large search engines such as Google or Bing. These attorneys specialize in filing lawsuits against unauthorized users of publicly available images – and they can win their lawsuits in the United States. It is best for professionals who may give the appearance of having “deep pockets” to purchase all images used publicly, regardless of what one’s web manager says. Many web managers are unaware of the legal liabilities involved. In addition to such attorneys, many others file false claims. While they can be defeated because some states such as Illinois have passed laws to protect people from “copyright trolls”, such letters can be alarming. It is best to steer clear of them as much as possible.

Using Protected Health Information

Protected Health Information (PHI) is any information that can be used to identify an individual patient. This includes names, addresses, birth dates, social security numbers among other health-related information that can be traced back to an individual patient. Social media posts should never contain any PHI. HIPAA regulations forbid the use of PHI in marketing or social media campaigns as well.

What Can Health Care Professionals Post in Social Media?

Restrictions regarding HIPAA and social media are many for professionals. What is appropriate to post? Here are a few options:

  • Relevant news
  • Articles related to your area of focus
  • Health suggestions
  • Digital or local events of possible interest to your clients or patients
  • Professional achievements or awards you or your organization have earned
  • Advertisements that don’t contain any PHI
  • Posts about your staff, such as profiles or bios

For more HIPAA-related social media suggestions, see TBHI’s Are You Engaging in HIPAA Compliant Social Media. For an update of general social media guidelines for regulators published by the American Association of State and Provincial Licensing Boards, see Social Media Guidelines Adopted by ASPPB.

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