Mutual Matters

Physician practices and social media use: policies for success

Posted by Kristen on Apr 14, 2016 2:00:00 PM


Social networks are a rapidly growing part of the Internet and a big part of how people spend their time online. Recent reports show Facebook has 1.4 billion users; Twitter has 320 million; YouTube has 1 billion, and those numbers are only increasing[i].

Many patients who engage in social networking are also more likely to turn to these outlets for treatment and diagnostic information. Recent data shows that 60% of people who use social media trust posts that are written by doctors. With this in mind, social media offers a real opportunity for doctors to engage with their patients outside the four walls of their practice[ii]. Though there are risks involved, when used correctly, the benefits of social media can outweigh those risks.

The mobility of social media allows doctors to connect with patients in a more immediate way. Using social media channels – information can be disseminated at an extraordinary speed and reach more people faster. This rapid sharing of information offers physicians the opportunity for greater connection and engagement with patients.

Though beneficial in many aspects, there are reasons to be apprehensive about social media, particularly as it pertains to HIPAA and HITECH. Some common social media violations include[iii]:

  • Posting verbal “gossip” about a patient to unauthorized individuals, even if the patient’s name is not disclosed.
  • Sharing photographs or any form of protected health information (PHI) without written consent from a patient.
  • Mistakenly believing that posts are private or have been deleted when they are still visible to the public.
  • Sharing of seemingly innocent pictures, such as a workplace lunch, that could contain visible patient files.

The staff needs to be aware of the potential risks associated with posting comments on social channels. Healthcare professionals are warned to never post pictures of patients inside the facility or when they are receiving treatment within their home. These photographs could be interpreted as an invasion of privacy or unauthorized sharing of PHI.

A thorough social media policy that all employees are trained on and must adhere to is crucial for your practice[iv].

Some items that should be addressed in your policy include:

  1. Writing in the first person – make it clear that the employee/user is not speaking on behalf of the practice.
  2. If the social media user identifies their connection with your practice, the user should uphold the high standards of conduct applied to your page.
  3. Use good judgment and be professional, accurate and honest. Be respectful to fellow employees.
  4. Avoid personally connecting with patients on social networks. Normal boundaries between healthcare professionals and their patients must be maintained.
  5. Social media activity should not interfere with work commitments.
  6. Allow the scrutiny of email, laptops, and handheld devices and, whenever possible, limit the use of these devices.
  7. Create specific guidelines that dictate how the practice’s page is to be used.
  8. Include protective messaging to ensure that users who interact with the page do not use the social channel for specific medical advice; in addition, warn them about the dangers of disclosing any of their own PHI.

There can be no doubt that when used effectively and appropriately, social media has the potential to be a great tool for promoting your practice and for engaging with patients. Once the right parameters have been set, including a contingency plan in case something does go wrong, your practice and staff should feel comfortable using social media to connect with peers, patients and the larger medical community.

Further reading: American Medical Association. Opinion 9.124 – Professionalism in the Use of Social Media. January 19, 2016.


[i] MagMutual Insurance Company. Learning Module Social Media and HIPAA Compliance. January 15, 2016.

[ii] Id.

[iii] Id.

[iv] Mayo Clinic. Sharing Mayo Clinic: Stories from patients, family, friends, and Mayo Clinic staff. January 18, 2016.


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