There can be no debate that social media has successfully invaded every aspect of our culture and our lives.  I am sticking with a fairly mainstream definition: Social media includes the various online technology tools that enable people to communicate easily via the internet to share information and resources.

To the extent you find that definition lacking, a simple Google search will provide you with more definitions than you will know what to do with.  No matter how you define “social media”, there is no doubt it is here to stay. Evidence of that fact is found in the numbers:

  • There are over 100 million active users on Twitter, generating over 230 million tweets a day
  • LinkedIn has over 120 million users
  • Facebook has over 800 million users

Based on these numbers, social media is not only here to stay, if the trend continues, it is only going to get bigger and more involved in all aspects of our lives.  For better or worse, health care was not excluded from that invasion.  On the positive side, social media has allowed health care providers to create very informative and helpful websites, recruiting pages for both patients and employees, and blogs about common health care issues.  Through the strength and power of social media, consumers of health care information have been able to gain access to information and experts that would have never been possible otherwise.  In addition, patients who previously believed that they were suffering alone have been able to share information about themselves and find people in similar clinical situations across the world.  This type of “virtual support group” has created a therapeutic healing environment that has enabled many to continue to fight their illness when they had previously contemplated giving up.

Despite all of the great things that social media has created, there is always a flip side….after all, I am a lawyer, it is my job to provide the flip side.  While social media has become a great tool for good, it has also become a significant weapon in the hands of those who are trying to hurt others or who are not thinking.  We have all seen reports of celebrities having their health care information from a recent hospital stay being stolen and provided to others via Facebook, Twitter or texting.  State laws protecting patient confidentiality immediately come into play in these instances and on a Federal level, laws like HIPAA and HITECH have significant penalties in place for such breaches of confidentiality of protected health care information (PHI).

Despite all of the laws in place to protect this information, it still seems like the health care industry is ill-prepared to deal with the negatives of social media.  In recent news stories, there are references to employees getting in trouble for taking pictures of patients or their physical symptoms and providing that information on the internet for public viewing.  There are also reports of employees going on a rant on Facebook or Twitter about the care being provided in their health care setting or the incompetence of their fellow employees.  Sometimes, these rants imply violations of both State and Federal regulatory laws and can cause major upheaval in the health care facility.  On one level, the most obvious question that comes to mind is, “What in the world was that person thinking when they decided to post that information?”  Unfortunately, that is the problem with social media.  It provides such an instantaneous rush through uploading that we are developing a culture that types and hits the “enter” button much faster than it thinks about the consequences or the ramifications of those actions.

In most other arenas, that type of impulsivity might result in little more than some embarrassment.  In health care, the results can be far more catastrophic to those who are harmed.  Since we cannot effectively control everyone that works in the health care industry, health care entities and providers must develop policies and procedures for their facilities to help instruct their employees on appropriate social media usage and to provide bright lines on what types of social media usage will NOT be tolerated.  Without these policies, health care employees will claim ignorance of the consequences of their actions and the damage will be done.  Health care entities should not wait for and hope that their staff will figure this out, the health care industry is different than a lot of other industries and must be pro-actively protected….otherwise, we are all at risk.