Many physicians and healthcare executives are afraid to engage with social media networks through fear of saying something they shouldn’t, or unintentionally damaging the reputation of the establishment they work for. For so many years the healthcare industry has been governed by rules about patient confidentiality so it goes against everything physicians and healthcare professionals know to update a portal, which anybody can access, in a working environment.
The social media concept can trip even the most professional people up if they do not know how to engage with it properly – take the instance in the news recently of Dr Amy Dunbar, an ob-gyn working at St. John’s Mercy Medical Center in St. Louis. Dunbar posted a comment to Facebook about a patient who was continually late for her scheduled appointments. Dunbar wrote:
“So I have a patient who has chosen to either no-show or be late (sometimes hours) for all of her prenatal visits, ultrasounds and NSTs. She is now 3 hours late for her induction. May I show up late to her delivery?”
When asked in the comments why she didn’t cancel the procedure or transfer the woman to another doctor, Dunbar publically announced that the patient in question had endured a stillbirth in the past. The post was visible not only to Dunbar’s 470 friends, but also to the wider Facebook community.
Dunbar’s posting angered and upset one reader, Amanda Johnson, who took a screenshot of the status update and posted it to a Facebook group run by Dunbar’s hospital – Mercy Moms To Be.
“When did it become okay for a doctor to ridicule and demean their patients?” Johnson, who works in the healthcare field, told Mashable in a Facebook message. “Even in my nursing home contract it very plainly states that we may not speak in any way of our clients, even if their names are not used.”
The Mercy Moms To Be Facebook page was frantic with comments for and against the post; many believed her comments were unprofessional and breached patient confidentiality, but some supported Dunbar and suggested that patient was at fault. Some also noted that Dunbar had never used the patient’s name.
After an investigation the hospital found that Dunbar had not in fact broken any patient privacy laws, nor were any of the hospitals management laws breached.
“Mercy values the dignity and privacy of all our patients and we are very sorry that this incident occurred. While our privacy compliance staff has confirmed that this physician’s comments did not represent a breach of privacy laws, they were inappropriate and not in line with our values of respect and dignity. Mercy holds its physicians and other co-workers to high standards in ensuring the protection of patient information. We cannot comment on specific disciplinary actions, but we will use this as an opportunity to reinforce our standards through additional education of our physicians and co-workers, including appropriate use of social media.”
And therein lies the problem. Many physicians and other medical employees are not given strict rules of engagement for social media networks. It is no wonder that mistakes are made if hospitals are providing their staff with guidelines that can be interpreted in more ways than one. Hospital executives need to be giving their employees strict rules and regulations about how to use social media sites to help them avoid any mistakes. It may take time to implement, but it could save an expensive and damaging PR campaign to rectify the damage caused in the long run.