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The Appropriate Use of Social Media

Wednesday, August 22, 2018 9:00 AM

Expert Advice, Hot Topics

Written by: Ryan Miller (guest blogger)

Editor’s note: Ryan Miller is the CEO of Etna Interactive, a website and strategy firm based in San Luis Obispo, Calif. that specializes in assisting medical practices increase the results of their internet efforts.

Ryan Miller
Etna Interactive CEO

It wasn’t all that long ago that doctors were skeptical of social media’s value for practice promotion. Few doctors are naturally inclined to broadcast their every move, and the idea of publicly interacting with patients runs counter to the tenets of patient privacy. Despite that uncomfortable, potentially precarious relationship with social posting, most practices today embrace social media for all its potential benefits.

As outlined in this report from RealSelf, people use social media to conduct research, evaluate their options, and select a doctor — so it’s no wonder why so many clinics are eager to embrace social media. Even more clinics are attracted to platforms like Facebook and Instagram by legends of effortless marketing success. But recent stories in the popular press are bringing to light the real risks associated with inappropriate use of social media in a medical setting.

User Beware

You’ve most likely seen the now infamous “Dancing Doctor,” Dr. Windell Davis-Boutte, who filmed herself rapping and dancing over sedated patients in the operating room. That behavior, along with seven lawsuits, cost the doctor her medical license.

Distasteful? Yes. Unethical? Maybe. But Dr. Davis-Boutte’s extreme example belies the subtler missteps a practice can make online. The gravity of that particular situation should remind us all of the need to proactively develop and follow best practices to avoid HIPAA violations and running afoul of state or medical society guidelines.

Whether you're already active on social media or just getting started, consider these steps to protect your license and your practice.

1. Protect your patients’ privacy.
A jury in Texas found Dr. James R. Motlagh negligent and awarded a patient $140,000 after he posted a video of her surgery on Facebook without her consent.

His case is blatant, but there are other ways to share your patients’ information that could be completely by accident. When videos and photos are published on the web, consent may be easily overlooked — and things as seemingly innocuous as file names and metadata are also being published. Even if patient information only appears there, you've still shared patient information.

To protect your patients — and yourself — implement stringent requirements that consent is secured for any media you share — from text testimonials to surgical videos. In addition, take steps to strip patient identity from any media you intend to be anonymous.
2. Stay professional.
An OB/GYN, Dr. Amy Dunbar, precipitated a caustic online backlash after she posted disparaging comments about a pregnant patient on Facebook. Almost as disappointing, three other medical professionals commented on the post, including a child psychiatrist who suggested that the mom-to-be was busy getting a drink at a bar. Dr. Dunbar and her colleagues were likely unaware that this post was completely visible to the public — not just to her Facebook friends.

The simplest way to avoid being in a similar circumstance? Just be professional. Act on social networks as you would in person; imagine the people you’re talking about are standing right there next to you.

It’s also a good idea to politely decline requested social connections from patients on your personal profile and guide them to connect with you on your professional social media accounts instead. Then take the time to clearly articulate policies governing who on staff is permitted to post to social media on behalf of the practice. Share stories with your team about how inappropriate behavior on social media has negatively impacted people’s careers, so they understand what's at stake.
3. Keep proper boundaries.
It’s always a good idea to avoid any online relationships with current or former patients. Getting too close personally on social media with someone you’re also treating is never recommended.

You should also be mindful about the details you share on your own personal social media accounts. You’ll want to pay attention to things as subtle as what you're showing in photos. You certainly wouldn’t want to go the route of Dr. Vinaya Puppala, who took photos of a patient he knew through a mutual friend while she was in the ER. Unsurprisingly, she didn’t appreciate those photos being posted onto his Facebook and Instagram accounts — nor did she appreciate the commentary about her condition.

Exercise Caution

With disciplinary action for medical practice participation on social media increasing, you need to keep yourself and your practice safe. Use the advice above to mitigate possible risk. You can find additional best practices and instructions on how to protect yourself and your practice within Etna Interactive’s latest video, Appropriate Use of Social Media for Medical Professionals.

YOUR TURN: How are you protecting your practice on social media while still capitalizing on its potential and promise? Please share in the comments below.


  • Ashlee Vaughan said Reply

    Protect the practice by taking photos while there are NO patients visible. As most of you know, Google has a "google business" tool that allows you to upload pictures of your practice's exterior, interior, work team, and more. When I take photos of ANYTHING involving the practice, I make sure none of our patients are in the photos or videos posted.

    We are involved with charitable surgeries, as well. When we take pictures of the doctor with the patient, we get written consent from the patient. If we post a testimonial, we make sure the patient has consented for us to post it. I also make sure the patient knows we have Instagram and Facebook accounts. It is ALWAYS better to be safe than sorry.

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