Facebook friends with patients can violate HIPAA privacy laws

Should you friend your doctor on Facebook?

It’s a question that’s gaining increasing relevance as Facebook increases its social networking dominance.

I’ve touched upon the issue in the past. So has the New England Journal of Medicine.

Washington, DC physician Katherine Chretian gives her take on the issue in a recent USA Today op-ed. She is an expert of the Facebook-medicine intersection, having authored a JAMA study on the issue.

She says, no, doctors should not be friending their patients:

Having a so-called dual relationship with a patient — that is, a financial, social or professional relationship in addition to the therapeutic relationship — can lead to serious ethical issues and potentially impair professional judgment. We need professional boundaries to do our job well.

Furthermore, there’s the little matter of patient privacy and HIPAA. I wasn’t aware of this, but simply becoming Facebook friends with patients can infringe upon uncertain ground:

Much more serious are the potential threats to patient privacy that can occur when patients and physicians are communicating on a public platform such as Facebook.

Violations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, the law that protects against unauthorized disclosure of identifying health information, can result in fines up to $250,000 and/or imprisonment, besides being an ethical breach. The mere existence of a patient-physician relationship (e.g. having others suspect a Facebook friend is a patient) could be a violation of HIPAA.

Facebook pages, which many doctors and practices have — KevinMD.com is no exception — are the best way to interact with patients. Separate your personal and professional entities on Facebook.

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