Social Media and Patient Confidentiality

The rise of social media has given people a chance to connect with others in ways impossible before, but this can present a challenge to the nursing profession. Seemingly innocuous social media posts can have dangerous repercussions for nurses if they violate patient confidentiality, however unintentionally.

Understanding HIPAA Regulations

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) includes strict requirements concerning the confidentiality of patient health information. Nurses require access to their patients’ medical records to ensure safe and effective treatment, and there is a legal obligation to keep this information confidential from anyone who does not have the patient’s permission to view those records. HIPAA helps ensure safe and easy transmission of medical records between doctors, specialists, and other providers. Nurses must ensure HIPAA compliance at all times, and this means refraining from posting any information about their patients on social media.

Due to the omnipresence of social media in modern life, most medical organizations have enacted social media policies for nurses and all other employees beholden to HIPAA regulations. Every nurse should follow his or her employer’s social media policy to the letter. A HIPAA violation, even a completely unintentional one, can completely derail any healthcare professional’s career.

Potential Legal Issues From Social Media

Some nurses have shared stories about their work experiences on social media, and some of these posts have gone viral and helped point out issues in the healthcare industry or share inspiring stories of patients overcoming enormous odds. However, those stories generally leave out all personal details of the patients involved, and the people posting those stories generally leave the details vague enough that no one would likely guess who they are talking about.

Ultimately, sharing any patient information on social media can have dramatic consequences, including the loss of a job or possibly legal fines. The poster’s relationship to the patient in question can also influence the consequences; for example, if the poster did not actually have direct access to the patient’s information or did not directly treat the patient, there is no need for him or her to have any knowledge of the patient’s medical information.

The Bottom Line for Social Media

Some nurses develop close personal relationships to the patients they treat. A nurse and his or her patient may want to commemorate and share a treatment milestone, such as a final cancer treatment or positive test result. However, this is still protected patient information. The nurse must have the patient’s written, explicit permission to share such a photo, as harmless as it may seem. Otherwise, such a post, even one made in good faith, can potentially amount to a serious HIPAA violation.

Nurses should refrain from posting any type of specific patient information on social media. It is also best to avoid photos with a few exceptions. Even taking a photo of a hospital room or other parts of a nurse’s workplace could potentially include patient information, show a patient in a compromising position, or otherwise amount to a HIPAA violation. Nurses with questions about proper social media use should consult with their supervisors and strive to err on the side of caution when it comes to posting anything work-related.

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