“From a legal perspective, nurses using social media to reach out to patients pose a few major privacy issues,” says Miller. “Since most social media systems present security problems (in how they’re “built”, infrastructure, and/or how the user interacts with the specific social media system), open sharing of sensitive and confidential information leads to conflict with HIPAA.”
“Most of these social media systems (such as Facebook) are not as privacy forward as we believe,” Miller says. “Even something as simple as texting among nurses about a specific patient raises huge privacy issues.”
Also, social media platforms tend to create a false sense of security for nurses who often believe they are voicing their opinions, engaging in discussions, and posting images under the protection of privacy settings. Anything sent privately to an individual or posted on a closed forum has the potential to become public knowledge. Additionally, deleting statements and images from a social media account does not mean they have been completely removed from the Internet.
As a rule of thumb, nurses should not use social media to:
- Complain About or Comment on the Health of Patients: The American Nursing Association warns against making disparaging remarks about patients (even if they’re not identified) in order to avoid problems with social media. “Do not talk about how rude a patient is, how bad they look or unhealthy they are…it will find a way to leak out, and even if it doesn’t, it causes others to view you in less professional nature, as well as the institution you are associated with,” says Lincoln. “It can also damage others perception of your character.”
- Post Photographs of Patients: After posting a picture of a young cancer patient on Facebook, a nursing student was expelled from school, and the nursing program barred from using the pediatric unit for teaching after the administration was alerted. The hospital and patient were easily identified through the picture, which is a violation of HIPAA.
Even if a nurse gains permission from a patient to take pictures, employers can still take action. Despite getting the consent of a patient to photograph an injury, an emergency room nurse who shared the images on a nursing forum for learning purposes was disciplined even though the patient’s face was not visible; the type of injury made it easy to identify the patient.
- Rant About Place of Employment: Because of the nature of work that a nurse does, speaking negatively on social media about co-workers, administrators, job duties, their place of employment, and/or workplace policies can lead to disciplinary actions. These types of negative online comments also place a hospital or doctor’s office in a bad light, as well as jeopardize a nurse’s job security. Even when opinions are voiced under the strictest privacy settings, there is always the possibility that online commentary can reach unintended readers.
To minimize the chances of violating workplace policies, using a personal email address as a primary means of identification on social media accounts instead of an email address associated with a hospital or place of employment is highly recommended.
Additionally, when writing a blog or participating in online activities that have the potential to negatively impact the reputation (or go against the policies of a healthcare employer), avoid establishing a direct connection to the place of employment. For this reason, many nurses comment anonymously or write blogs using a pseudonym.
- Blow Off Work-Related Steam: Because of the visibility that social media platforms provide, Lincoln says it is critical for nurses to maintain composure and professionalism at all times.
“One of the most important things for a nurse to avoid is speaking negatively about a patient on social media,” he says. “This might seem like a no-brainer, but everyone gets frustrated at times and in many cases in medical situations, a nurse may feel overwhelmed.” Lincoln stresses to refrain from saying anything negative about “patient interaction, the prospect of patient recovery, or even just a general bad day on the job.”
- Use Offensive Language and/or Voice Offensive Comments: Since nurses work with a diverse flow of patients that come from a wide range of economic-, racial-, ethnic- and religious backgrounds, making social media comments that are threatening, harassing, profane, obscene, sexually explicit, racially derogatory, homophobic, or deemed controversial are often grounds for discipline at the workplace.