Question of the Week

Question: The medical director of one of our specialty clinics would like to create a Facebook page where he could communicate with his patients. What are the legal risks we need to keep in mind if we allow this endeavor?

Answer: There is nothing legally that would prohibit a physician from interacting with his or her patients via electronic mediums such as Facebook or Twitter. In fact, it seems logical to expect increased demand for this type of communication from both patients and physicians. Allowing physicians to interact with patients electronically provides a number of potential benefits, including increased practice efficiencies, a reduction in the number of office visits, and greater convenience for both parties. However, it must also be recognized that a physician who interacts with patients in this way must still comply with the minimum standards of care for the practice of medicine in your state.

Documentation also could become problematic (e.g., if any communications are relevant to the individual’s ongoing care, what mechanisms will be in place to get the information documented in the medical record?).

Privacy, security, and confidentiality are also of primary concern. Under the HIPAA security regulations, health organizations are required to ensure the confidentiality and integrity of all electronic protected health information the organization creates, receives, maintains, or transmits. As such, it is generally recommended that some type of secure communication tool be used for e-communications between a physician and a patient in order to avoid the risk of inappropriate disclosure of protected health information. We would recommend an analysis be completed to see if Facebook provides an appropriate level of security to ensure compliance with these requirements.

To learn more about the wonders of using social media at your hospital, please join Alan Steinberg, Phil Zarone and Ian Donaldson on February 28, 2012 for a special HSM audio conference entitled “OMG! Hospitals, EHR Patient Portals and Social Media – What Hospitals Need to Know.”