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The Potentially Dangerous Intersection of Healthcare and Social Media

August 5, 2016 | John Mahon, Jr.

Lately, there have been numerous reports in the media raising patient privacy concerns due to healthcare providers’ use of social media in the workplace.  A few examples include:

  • An ER nurse posting to Instagram a photo of a bloodied trauma room taken just after treating a patient who had been hit by a subway train – causing the hospital to take action against the nurse and terminate her employment;
  • A young St. Louis obstetrician who took to Facebook to air complaints about a chronically tardy patient, who had suffered a stillbirth – which was reposted and drew hundreds of angry comments and led to a reprimand of the physician by the hospital where she worked;
  • A Northwestern University physician posting photos of a student admitted to a Chicago hospital for extreme intoxication – leading to a $1 million lawsuit for invasion of privacy and infliction of emotional distress;
  • A Chicago ER nurse sharing information on Twitter about a gunshot patient, including insulting tweets and a photo of the bloodied trauma room where the medical staff tried to save him – leading to a lawsuit against the nurse and the hospital for negligence and emotional distress seeking more than $100,000;
  • Reports of abuse of elderly residents of nursing homes and senior care facilities in California, Colorado and Iowa, including the posting of nude and other humiliating photos to Facebook, Instagram and Shapchat – leading to termination, license suspension, and even criminal prosecution.

These and other examples demonstrate that patients, employers, regulators and even law makers and law enforcement are taking very seriously these new types of privacy concerns spawned by emerging and evolving social media platforms, and they are becoming more aggressive in pursuing such cases.  Some employers and industry groups are undertaking efforts to revamp internal policies and procedures and training methods to address issues unique to the ever-changing landscape of social media technology.  There is no way to tell what the future might bring in terms of patient privacy issues and social media, but it seems likely that these challenges will continue to plague the healthcare industry.

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