Like so many others, nurses are taking advantage of the many benefits that social media outlets offer. Electronic communication platforms have brought dramatic changes to many aspects of nursing. In addition to electronic health records and online learning modules, more and more nurses are using social media to broaden and deepen opportunities for education and communication.
In addition to the more common Facebook and Twitter platforms, the ever-expanding use of social media includes blogs, social networking sites, online chat rooms, and forums. Nurses are using these electronic media to share valuable healthcare information, build relationships, investigate new areas of nursing care, and seek job opportunities and career advancement. But to avoid risking their professional reputations or violating confidentiality laws, nurses need to be knowledgeable about how they share information online.
Protecting Patient Confidentiality
Most healthcare organizations have policies that govern employee use of media in the workplace, but these policies often do not address use of social media outside the workplace. To comply with privacy laws, nurses must protect all patient information—on and off the job—and disclose it only with the patient’s informed consent, when it is legally required, or in cases where failure to disclose the information could result in harm. Nurses can suffer consequences even if the breach in confidentiality is inadvertent.
Because social media is still a relatively new venue, misperceptions exist that have led to inappropriate disclosure of information. For example, some mistakenly believed that information posted on social media outlets can be accessed only by the intended recipient or that it is acceptable to discuss patient information as long as the patient is not identified by name.
The consequences for inappropriate use of social media can be serious. If a nurse violates state or federal laws that protect patient privacy, civil and criminal penalties, including fines and possibly even jail time, may result. The nurse’s actions may reflect on the healthcare organization and result in a lawsuit or regulatory consequences. In some cases, a nurse may be held personally liable. If the use of social media violates the employer’s policies, the nurse may face employment penalties including termination. For example, five nurses in California were fired as a result of allegedly discussing patients on Facebook even though no patient names, photos, or other identifying information were revealed. In another case, two nurses at a Wisconsin healthcare facility were fired after they posted photos of a patient’s X-ray on Facebook.
Avoiding Social Media Pitfalls
Above all, nurses must uphold their ethical and legal responsibility to maintain patient privacy. By being informed and using good judgment, they can avoid unintended negative consequences. Sound practices for using social media include:
- Uphold the same standards of professionalism online that would apply in any other circumstance; never make a disparaging remark about a patient, employer, or coworker, even if they are not identified.
- Don’t transmit information that could identify a patient, and never share or post any information or photos gained through the nurse-patient relationship.
- Be sure that you comply with your facility’s policies governing the use of social media and patient privacy.
- Always observe professional nurse-patient boundaries; online contact with patients or former patients can blur the distinction between a professional and personal relationship. The fact that a patient may initiate contact with the nurse does not permit the nurse to engage in a personal relationship with the patient.
- Be aware that anything you post on a social media site can be viewed by patients, colleagues, and employers. Limiting access to postings through privacy settings is not sufficient to ensure privacy.
- Report any breach of confidentiality or privacy immediately; alert the appropriate authorities if any content could jeopardize a patient’s privacy, rights, or welfare.