Over the summer, the Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure adopted the Model Policy for the Appropriate Use of Social Media and Social Networking in Medical Practice (“Model Policy”) that was issued by the Federation of State Medical Boards (“FSMB”). FSMB created their policy in 2012 to help medical boards provide guidance and education about issues related to social media. The FSMB Model Policy followed the American Medical Association’s (“AMA”) 2010 “Professionalism in the Use of Social Media” policy. Both incorporate the same principles, but the FSMB offers more concrete examples of conduct that should be avoided in social media activity.
The Model Policy is aimed at protecting physicians who use social media and social networking from “unintended consequences.” There has been no shortage of unintended consequences in recent years as the medical profession has embraced social media and networking; in fact, a 2010 survey of Executive Directors at state medical boards in the U.S. revealed that 92% indicated that violations of online professionalism were reported in their jurisdiction. The unintended consequences of social media can lead to real consequences, as even seemingly innocent and inconspicuous postings and interactions can result in costly and serious repercussions. Almost every physician has heard about or seen firsthand someone in the health care field violating HIPAA privacy and confidentiality standards through social media. In addition, inappropriate postings or patient-physician communications can lead to violations of the Kentucky Medical Practice Act, licensing violations, or even fraud and abuse charges (i.e., physicians pay money to third parties to promote their services through online media platforms).
Indeed, social media and social networking is fraught with pitfalls. Luckily, the Model Policy includes easy-to-understand and simple recommendations, including:
Physicians should only have online interactions 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 sites.
It is the physician’s responsibility to ensure that professional networks for physicians, such as Doximity, are secure and that only verified and registered users have access to the information. These websites should be password protected.
Patient privacy and confidentiality must be protected at all times; physicians should never provide any information that could be used to identify patients (such as room numbers, pictures, or code names).
Physician employees of health care institutions should be aware that employers may reserve the right to edit, modify, delete, or review Internet communications.
While 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 the Model Policy serves as a cautionary reminder of the hazards of social media, it also emphasizes the “enormous potential” social media has for both physicians and their patients. As telecommuting grows, electronic health records are implemented, and smart phones find their way into more and more physicians’ hands, it is obvious that shying away from technology is no longer an option. Nor should it be, as the use of social media really does have its benefits: reduced costs, improved physician-to-physician sharing and learning opportunities, the crossing of geographic boundaries, and a way to provide important information to the public.
The newest generation of physicians grew up in the age of Facebook and Twitter – Internet communications are second nature to them. What might not be second nature is the code of professionalism that accompanies their new roles. Older physicians, on the other hand, are well versed in the rules of professional conduct, but do not know how these rules transfer into the world of social media and networking. The Model Policy should be read by both of these camps as they navigate the ever-changing technological landscape and adopt best practices to protect both themselves and their patients.
While the Model Policy is a great starting point, there is no reason to stop there; medical practices and other health care providers should create and implement their own social media policies. All personnel should undergo extensive social media training and, to the extent possible and legally permissible, employees’ social media activity should be monitored for compliance.
The Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure’s adoption of the Model Policy was a significant step towards acknowledging the role of social media in today’s health care culture and helping physicians recognize important boundaries. At the end of the day, though, it is and always has been the physician’s responsibility to manage his or her own professional reputation – both in the office and online.
Christopher J. Shaughnessy is an attorney at McBrayer, McGinnis, Leslie & Kirkland, PLLC. Mr. Shaughnessy concentrates his practice area in health care law and is located in the firm’s Lexington office. He can be reached at email@example.com or at (859) 231-8780.