Health Information Management

Q&A: 'Friending' patients on Facebook

HIM-HIPAA Insider, July 19, 2011

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Q: One of our nurses has “friended” one of our patients on Facebook. Is this allowed?

A: More and more of us have an online social-networking presence through Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc., and patients and their families may look us up and ask to become our friends. This puts us in a potentially awkward position. For example, they may see information on our walls or in photos that we might prefer not to share with our professional contacts.
Some professional associations are developing guidelines for the use of social media, and we will see more of this in the near future.
In the meantime, be very careful about your privacy settings. Do you really want your patients (or perhaps a potential employer) to see what you did last weekend? Be cautious—once information is posted, it is always out there somewhere.
In addition, while in some circumstances it might be appropriate to friend a patient (e.g., if you have a previous relationship with the patient), it is generally inadvisable to friend patients or their families. Healthcare organizations should develop policies on this matter so that staff members asked to become Facebook friends can simply respond that their organization does not allow it, avoiding hurt feelings.
Most importantly, never tell patient stories on Facebook or other social networking sites. Even if you think you have removed identifying information, those familiar with the patient may be able to connect the dots and figure out about whom you are writing. Employees have lost their jobs thanks to incidents like these, so simply avoid putting any information about patients in your posts altogether-it's the safest way to make sure you give all patients the privacy they deserve and are entitled to by law.
Editor’s note: Chris Simons, RHIA, director of ­utilization management, HIM, and privacy officer at Spring Harbor Hospital in Westbrook, ME, answered this question in the July issue of Medical Records Briefing.

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