- Health care providers want to use social-media sites such as Facebook and Twitter to communicate with and market to consumers and patients. They believe responsible use of communication and collaboration tools will be a boon to busy medical professionals.Health care providers that shun social media out of misplaced fears they could be breaking privacy rules are eliminating a resource that helps them differentiate, communicate, and collaborate.
When ARRA (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) was enacted in 2009, most people focused on the economic stimulus. But the law also included dramatic changes to HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), such as increased penalties for violations. There were also new obligations that required health care providers to change existing HIPAA policies and procedures, as well as business associate contracts.
Fearful that they could unwittingly cross a HIPAA line, some medical professionals avoid social networking entirely, according to Avvo, provider of a free online directory of doctors and lawyers.
“HIPAA is a well-intentioned, but poorly implemented law that is unnecessarily scaring doctors and keeping them in an unrealistic ‘technology lockdown’,” said Mark Britton, founder and CEO of the Seattle-based company. “We believe passionately that physicians are needlessly hand-tied by HIPAA legalities. We want every working doctor out there to know that there are many appropriate and safe channels through which they can build their profile and reputation on the Web.”
After all, approximately one-third of Americans who go online to look into their health use social media to find other patients and talk about their conditions, and 36 percent of social-network users evaluate and leverage other peoples' knowledge before they make a medical decision, according to the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions.
"Social networks hold considerable potential value for health care organizations because they can be used to reach stakeholders, aggregate information and leverage collaboration," said Paul Keckley, executive director of Deloitte Center.
To assuage health care providers' HIPAA fears, experts recommend that facilities create and publish social-media policies that cover Facebook, Twitter, blogging, YouTube, posting photographs, and all other aspects of social networking.
“Estimates vary, but about 50 percent of hospitals still block social-media sites, but that number is slowly decreasing. In the past two years, I've talked with many health care organizations who are opening access, but none that are closing it,” said Ed Bennett, director of Web operations at the University of Maryland Medical Center. Bennett provides a list of the hospitals’ published social-media policies.
Health care organizations also should consult with legal professionals early and often, recommended Dan Hinmon, principal at Hive Strategies, which focuses on guiding hospitals through the social-media maze. Training is critical, too, he said, and health care providers should look over their social media sites daily.
“Review your social-media platforms at least daily. That helps you respond quickly to the good and bad that comes your way, and helps you build those strong, trusting relationships that can be so powerful,” wrote Hinmon in a blog. “You should remove any posts or comments that violate HIPAA regulations by disclosing protected health information.”
Consumers and patients want health care providers to use social media as a communications tool. With careful planning and review, the medical community can leverage this effective and affordable resource for marketing and correspondence.