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Guidelines Issued by Medical Associations Help Mitigate Physicians’ Exposures to Privacy Issues


Recommendations Provide Doctors with Guidance for Social Media, Texting, Emailing

The American College of Physicians and the Federation of State Medical Boards has established guidelines for physicians in communicating with patients in an effort to help stem privacy risks. This will help all physicians and their staff, including young doctors in particular who are accustomed to being “wired” and need to understand the privacy exposures they face in today’s digital world.

The guidelines include texting patients with “extreme caution” and using email only with those patients who understand the risk of lost privacy. Texts or e-mails can end up being seen by people other than the intended recipients and doctors can purposely or accidentally end up giving online medical advice to people they don’t know in their blog comments, tweets, Facebook posts, etc. David Fleming, an internist from the University of Missouri, who also leads an ethics committee for the American College of Physicians and the Federation of State Medical Boards”, says: “Think twice before you hit the send button and before you use any means of communication other than talking to patients behind closed doors.”

Moreover, physicians should also not “friend” patients on Facebook. Not only do you have privacy issues with patients, but doctors also should look out for their professional reputations. They should maintain separate professional and personal online personas and use privacy settings to maintain boundaries. You want to avoid, for example, posting vacation pictures or party videos in public forums.
Following are some of the guidelines issued by the Federation of State Medical Boards:

Interacting with Patients: Physicians are discouraged from interacting with current or past patients on personal social networking sites such as Facebook. Physicians should only have online interaction with patients when discussing the patient’s medical treatment within the physician-patient relationship, and these interactions should never occur on personal social networking or social media websites. In addition, physicians need to be mindful that while advanced technologies may facilitate the physician-patient relationship, they can also be a distracter that may lessen the quality of the interactions they have with patients. Such distractions should be minimized whenever possible.

Discussion of Medicine Online: Social networking websites may be useful places for physicians to gather and share their experiences, as well as to discuss areas of medicine and particular treatments. These types of professional interactions with other physicians represent an ancillary and convenient means for peer-to-peer education and dialogue. However, while such networks may be useful, it is the responsibility of the physician to ensure, to the best of his or her ability, that professional networks for physicians are secure and that only verified and registered users have access to the information. These websites should be password protected so that non-physicians do not gain access and view discussions as implying medical advice, which may be counter to the physicians’ intent in such discussions. Physicians should also confirm that any medical information from an online discussion that they plan to incorporate into their medical practice is corroborated and supported by current medical research.

Privacy/Confidentiality: Just as in the hospital or ambulatory setting, patient privacy and confidentiality must be protected at all times, especially on social media and social networking websites. These sites have the potential to be viewed by many people and any breaches in confidentiality could be harmful to the patient and in violation of federal privacy laws, such as HIPAA. While physicians may discuss their experiences in non-clinical settings, they should never provide any information that could be used to identify patients. Physicians should never mention patients’ room numbers, refer to them by code names, or post their picture. If pictures of patients were to be viewed by others, such an occurrence may constitute a serious HIPAA violation.

Posting Content: Physicians should be aware that any information they post on a social networking site may be disseminated (whether intended or not) to a larger audience, and that what they say may be taken out of context or remain publicly available online in perpetuity. When posting content online, they should always remember that they are representing the medical community. Physicians should always act professionally and take caution not to post information that is ambiguous or that could be misconstrued or taken out of context. Physician employees of health care institutions should be aware that employers may reserve the right to edit, modify, delete, or review Internet communications. Physician writers assume all risks related to the security, privacy and confidentiality of their posts. When moderating any website, physicians should delete inaccurate information or other’s posts that violate the privacy and confidentiality of patients or that are of an unprofessional nature.

While on-line platforms can help physicians reach out to patients when used properly, common sense and precaution must be taken. What’s more, the right type of coverages, including Errors & Omissions (Medical Malpractice) and Privacy insurance, should be obtained through professionals who are experienced in creating specific programs for the risks that physicians face. Axis Insurance Services, LLC can work with you to provide you with the right coverages in addition to helping you mitigate your exposures. Just give us a call at (877) 787-5258.

Source: Federation of State Medical Boards 

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Blogged on: May 21, 2013 by Mike Smith
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