Doctor reprimanded after patient privacy breached on Facebook, my take

Patient privacy and social media use in health care often go together when reported in mainstream media.

When physician blogs were a relatively new phenomenon several years ago, the majority of the media coverage focused on edge cases, where doctors inadvertently revealed patient information.

Only a minority of the headlines focused on the positive aspects, such as how social media could, and should, be used to guide patients to better sources of health information.

As social media has expanded past blogs, and into Facebook and Twitter, there’s more potential for negative press.

Consider the recent story about a physician in Rhode Island.

As reported in the Boston Globe,

[A doctor in Rhode Island] was fired from the hospital last year and reprimanded by the state medical board last week. The hospital took away her privileges to work in the emergency room for posting information online about a trauma patient.

Thran’s posting did not include the patient’s name, but she wrote enough that others in the community could identify the patient, according to a board filing. Thran, who did not return calls for comment yesterday, also was fined $500.

Several interesting points stem from the story. Note that I haven’t seen the offending post in question (it has been since deleted), so there’s some speculation here.

First, doctors run a risk posting clinical patient information online. The doctor did apparently omit identifying patient information, but not well enough. I read patient stories all the time online, and most provide a valuable window into how medicine is practiced today. Doctors must be more vigilant than ever when concealing identifying patient information. As this case shows, sometimes the clinical details is enough to violate HIPAA. Better to be safe and obtain written patient permission before posting a patient story online.

Next, this isn’t going to inspire confidence for hospitals to have their doctors to adopt social media. Westerly Hospital has now made national headlines, for the wrong reason. But instead of shying away from social media, a case like this makes it more imperative for hospitals get pro-active.

Westerly Hospital did not have a social media policy at the time. Every hospital needs one, and publicize it to their employees. It’s better to know what’s acceptable to post online beforehand, rather than dealing the aftereffects of a nationally publicized patient privacy breach.

As an aside, the hospital where I trained, Boston Medical Center, takes a social media-naive stance:

Boston Medical Center, for example, doesn’t have a policy. “It just doesn’t seem to have been an issue as of yet,’’ spokeswoman Gina DiGravio said.

Bad idea. Better to be pro-active now, rather than having it become an issue later on. Truly disappointing.

And, finally, I feel bad for the reprimanded physician. Her online persona will be forever linked to this episode. If she’s reading this, I would suggest getting more pro-active online, and take control of the online information associated with your name. She’s probably understandably stung by this episode, but instead of shying away, it’s all the more reason to get online, apologize, and tell your side of the story.  Take control of your personal narrative.

This episode isn’t going to endear doctors to use social media professionally. That’s a shame. But if we can use this as a valuable teaching point, rather than a reason not to use social media, perhaps physicians can embrace it in a more responsible way rather than shunning it completely.

 is an internal medicine physician and on the Board of Contributors at USA Today.  He is founder and editor of KevinMD.com, also on FacebookTwitterGoogle+, and LinkedIn.

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