When to police staff social media use

July 19, 2018
Batya Swift Yasgur, MA, LSW
Volume 95, Issue 14

Frequent use of social media is common, but it can cause some problems in a medical practice setting.

Smartphones are ubiquitous. Beyond phone calls and texting, rarely does a moment go by without an urge to peek at the latest Facebook message or newest Instagram picture. While this may be fine at home, it can cause some problems in a medical practice setting if staff members use their smartphones to access social media.

Nitin S. Damle, MD, MS, MACP, board member and physician at South County Internal Medicine in Wakefield, R.I., says his staff are instructed to leave their phones in their lockers and turned off during work hours.

“There is no reason anyone should be getting onto any website other than one that is related to work during working hours,” he says.

What about break time?

Some practices allow use of staff smartphones during breaks, but within specific guidelines. For example, personal social media accounts must be clearly personal and not representative of the office, practice, or health system and no protected patient or other office-related data can appear anywhere on those personal accounts.

Damle adds that the same rules that apply to use of social media at work apply to personal phone calls as well. “There are certainly exceptions in more acute circumstances-for example, when an employee has an ill family member-but an employee who has to be constantly accessible to an elderly parent, for example, taking multiple phone calls from the parent or caregivers during patient care hours wouldn’t bode well for work performance,” he says.

Facebook friends with patients?

A more challenging issue is personal social media relationships between staff and patients. Sometimes office staff may refer friends or relatives to the practice, which can also be tricky where social media is concerned.

In situations like these, the staff member already has a relationship with the patient, so physicians should emphasize that they should not use social media to give medical advice, information, scheduling, test results, or any other practice-related communications via their personal account.

Instead, practice-related communications should flow through normal channels, such as the secure patient portal.

Outside the office

Although it is more difficult to control staff members’ social media behavior outside the office, ground rules can still be established.

“Clearly, staff members shouldn’t talk about patients, even if they de-identify them, or about co-employees, or employers,” he says. Patients also should not post photographs of the work site, patients, physicians, or medical personnel. 

He emphasizes that if this type of activity comes to his attention, “it is immediate grounds for dismissal.” However, if the staff member is a friend or relative of a patient, it is acceptable to post pictures that might include the patient in an out-of-office setting.

Photographs taken within the office might seem innocuous, but can also potentially compromise the privacy of other staff members. For example, perhaps one of the physicians has pictures of his family on his desk-or of patients, even after hours. These posted pictures can also give the misimpression that the photographer is speaking on behalf of the practice.

Damle concludes by stressing that patient care “is at the center of any medical practice” and anything that causes a distraction or interruption of that care, such as inappropriate use of social media, should be avoided.

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