Medical residents: Tips to keep a clean social media profile

By now, it’s common knowledge that people should be careful about what they post to social media sites — especially job seekers. But if you’re a resident or physician, you need to be especially careful because of HIPAA.

Again, this seems like common sense. But the more popular social media becomes, the more the lines are blurred. For most people, Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and other sites are a part of day-to-day life. It’s easy to quickly post casual observations and comments without giving second thought to what you write.

This news story details the case of Dr. Alexandra Thran, who was fired from Rhode Island’s Westerly Hospital because she posted too much information about a patient in her social media profile. She didn’t include the patient’s name or age, but the information was detailed enough to identify the patient.

And that’s just one example of many cases. Hundreds of healthcare professionals nationwide have been reprimanded or fired because of accidentally divulging private information.

As a resident or new physician, you need to know what to do to keep yourself (and your patients) safe. This doesn’t just mean you should clean up your profile as you search for a job. You should be mindful and careful about using social media throughout your entire career. It can be a great tool, but as a physician, you need to be extra careful.

Here are my tips for keeping “clean” social media profiles as a resident or physician:

1. Set your privacy settings to high. Edit the settings on all of your social media accounts so that the privacy levels are as high as possible. This will prevent people who aren’t connections from seeing an excess of information, including wall posts, personal information and comments.

2. Establish separate personal and professional accounts. This is a choice many physicians make, and it can be a smart one. Believe it or not, many patients will try to add you on Facebook and other sites, and they’ll even post to your wall when they have a medical question. Huge no-no! Avoid this awkwardness altogether by establishing separate personal and professional accounts. You can even use a pseudonym on your personal accounts that only your close friends and family members know.

However, don’t assume that just because you have an account under a false name means you can post whatever you want. You still need to be very, very careful.

3. Take a moment to reflect before every post and update. It’s so easy to quickly and mindlessly post things to social media sites. From updates about your day to comments on a friend’s vacation photos, there are so many opportunities to communicate.

Here’s something I highly suggest: Train yourself to take a small “mindfulness moment” — it only needs to be 5-10 seconds — before you post anything, no matter how mundane. In that moment, ask yourself if you could potentially be violating any patient privacy laws. If you have even a smidgen of doubt, don’t click “post.” Think of something else to write, or don’t write anything at all.

4. Consider physician-only social networking sites. Social media is an incredibly useful tool, and many doctors are using it to communicate with one another and share ideas. Because of this, several physician-only social media sites have popped up. These exclusive communities are safer for sharing ideas.

Your hospital or program might have physician-only message boards that you can participate in. There are also sites like Doximity, the networking site just for healthcare professionals, which has HIPAA-grade encryption and security.

Adriana Tobar is a family physician and resident advisor for Adventures in Medicine.

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  • http://www.practicebalance.com/ PracticeBalance

    Thanks for this post. It’s funny that you mentioned physician-only social media b/c I had the worst experience on Sermo… that site is full of snarky commenters. Totally unprofessional in my opinion, even if it is supposed to be an MD-only outlet. I won’t go there anymore.

  • http://www.facebook.com/will.harper.5036 Will Harper

    Be careful. You may not have meant this, but your last point suggests doctor-only sites are HIPAA safe. Just because only doctors are reading doesn’t make you immune from HIPAA violations if you post too much. We doctors reading don’t have a need-to-know. It would be a violation.

    • http://reputationchamp.com/ Jason Dowd

      This is a very good point. It doesn’t matter where online you discuss PHI, you are still bound by HIPAA. Also, setting you’re privacy settings to high is good advise but social websites keep your posting history for quite a while (even the posts you delete). They sell this information, without divulging your identity (supposedly), so who knows where your “private” discussions will end up. PHI and social networks just don’t mix very well. Social networks are still finding their way to provide basic privacy, their not even close to dealing with HIPAA.

  • narelle dogan

    Thanks for sharing

  • bill10526

    The bible says “an eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth”. Punishment should be commensurate with the crime. With HIPPA there is no investigation as to extent of harm done, which is almost always none.. Loss of job and prestige are very strong punishments. It would be capital punishment for steeling a bicycle.

    • Lisa

      I don’t know if you mean “the bible says.” The bible includes the new testament as well, in which Jesus does away with the “an eye for an eye” mentality. Just wanted to point that out, this would not be the appropriate place to discuss this any further. But I do agree with your latter statement.

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