In a connected world, social media has become part of daily life. So much so, that it is often difficult for nurses to determine what is appropriate to post and share online. With privacy laws, such as HIPAA, a seemingly small virtual mistake can have serious consequences for nurses and patients alike. Here is how to proceed with caution.
What Does HIPAA Say About Privacy?
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) has several specific components. One section of the legislation is the HIPAA Privacy Rule, which aims to prevent unauthorized disclosures of protected health information (PHI). This information may include more common identifiers, such as name, address and social security number, as well as a patient's diagnosis, health condition and the type of care received. The rule protects PHI disclosures in all forms, including electronic, paper and oral. Since the use and disclosure of PHI is largely intended to be solely for the purpose of treatment, payment and healthcare operations, any reference to it on social media is prohibited.
What Are Common Social Media Mistakes?
Beyond avoiding blatant PHI disclosures, there are other common social media pitfalls that can impact nurses. It is recommended that you do not post any of the following:
- Any text, images, photos or videos that make it possible to identify patients or PHI, even if only in the background, both on your public accounts and in private groups, forums and messages
- Complaints about your employer or workplace, even if names are not disclosed
- Gossip about your employer or co-workers, even if names are not disclosed
- Gossip about patients, even if names are not disclosed
- Content with offensive language or comments
Are There Consequences to Oversharing on Social Media?
For most people, oversharing on social media rarely has consequences beyond temporarily frustrating friends or acquaintances. For nurses, though, posting inappropriate content has the potential to create a cascade of disastrous effects, including:
- Causing current and future employers, friends and family to question your character and decision-making abilities
- Subjecting yourself to disciplinary actions, such as a formal write-up, unpaid leave and possibly even termination, depending on your employer's policies and the severity of the offense
- Having to face penalties for civil violations that may necessitate issuance of a fine by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office for Civil Rights (OCR), with a maximum penalty of up to $50K per violation
- Having to face criminal charges and additional fines, including prison sentences of up to 10 years and fines up to $250K
How Can Nurses Avoid Social Media Mistakes?
In addition to remaining mindful of HIPAA privacy laws, here are some additional tips to keep online troubles at bay:
Know your employer's policies. Every employer will likely have their own specific guidelines covering social media and mobile phone usage in the workplace. You should take the time to read through those in full and ask your employer for any clarifications, if needed. It is critical you review these policies annually or as your employer updates them.
Know your school's expectations too. Review any privacy and posting policies associated with your degree program as well as the clinical settings in which you are completing rotations.
Tuck your phone away. Get in the habit of putting your phone away while you are serving in a nursing capacity. Secure it in your locker or other place where it is not readily available.
Avoid personal use of workplace computers. Do not log in to your personal accounts at work, including email and social media platforms. Similarly, do not use your work email when registering for any personal accounts either.
Skip "friending" patients. Whether you are sending friend requests or accepting them, it is wise not to engage with former and current patients in a personal capacity online. Maintaining professional boundaries and forgoing online connection removes the likelihood of unintentionally disclosing a patient's private health information.
Given the ubiquity of social media, it is unrealistic for nurses to sidestep online activities completely. However, by using common sense and remaining mindful of patients' rights as well as employers' policies, you can avoid career-damaging social media mistakes.
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