Social media should be embraced by health care

The intersection of social media and privacy has made an older generation, and even some of my own generation, incredibly uncomfortable. There is talk of present and future consequences. Lost jobs, lost income, civil judgments, loss of respect/embarrassment, even criminal penalties for all that you put online. There is an idea that the blurring of intimate boundaries will come back and bite a whole generation.

Being online has responsibilities and consequences, no doubt. But Facebook isn’t going to cost most people a future job or a future election. The social rules are, as we speak, changing in terms of how we judge people for their private lives that they make public. The whole world is using social media and putting themselves out there. Tough to judge someone for your same acts.

That said, if there’s one place there is legitimate consternation over social media it is in health care.

Because those involved in health care and social media have the often near unique opportunities to not only dismiss their own privacy online but to do so for others. Horrific stories are rife. Take this one for example,

William Wells arrived at the emergency room at St. Mary Medical Center in Long Beach on April 9 mortally wounded. The 60-year-old had been stabbed more than a dozen times by a fellow nursing home resident, his throat slashed so savagely he was almost decapitated.

Instead of focusing on treating him, an employee said, St. Mary nurses and other hospital staff did the unthinkable: They snapped photos of the dying man and posted them on Facebook.

It is unfortunate if such scares providers and health systems away from social media like blogs, Facebook and Twitter.

As Ed Bennett comments,

“We already have guidelines; social media is simply another form of communication. It’s no different from e-mail or talking to someone in an elevator,” Bennett said. “The safe advice is to assume anything you put out on a social media site has the potential to be public.”

It’s a form of communication with the potential, as all others, to be abused. But more importantly, it has great potential to further provider-patient discourse and aid in health.

No patient privacy protections will ever be perfect. No patient-provider communication rules will ever absolutely guarantee professionalism and accurate information at all times. But guidelines and rules can limit such problems while furthering patient’s access. That holds no matter the medium.

The proliferation of easy mass communication tools should be embraced by health care, not cowered from. As always there are appropriate and inappropriate uses which health care providers should be counseled on and which should carry rewards and penalties. But just because social media is new shouldn’t make it scary.

Colin Son is a neurosurgical intern who blogs at Residency Notes.

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