Social Media Liability: Effective Strategies to Minimize Risk

Many healthcare practices have established a social networking presence to educate the public, connect with potential patients and the local community, and enhance communication with staff and clinicians. Social networking, including the use of medical office practice websites, typically includes various types of online postings whether on a website blog or an external platform such as Facebook, TikTok, YouTube, LinkedIn, Instagram or Doximity to name a few.

These and other emerging platforms encourage dialogue between clinicians, colleagues and patients, enriching professional collaborations and leading to stronger, more successful clinical and patient relationships. Their misuse, however, can invite exposure to complaints related to unauthorized disclosure of protected patient information, legal claims due to posting of inappropriate content or copyright infringement, as well as potential professional liability claims for providing negligent medical advice online. This newsletter offers practical strategies to help obtain the advantages of social media while mitigating associated risks.

 

SOCIAL MEDIA SAFEGUARDS

Healthcare providers are obligated to maintain confidentiality, appropriate boundaries, and professionalism in all patient communications, irrespective of the mode of communication. See, e.g., AMA Code Medical Ethics 2.3.2 . and the Oregon Medical Board Guidelines. The following measures are designed to help improve compliance with social media use expectations and limit liability exposure:

Develop and implement written policies and procedures. Medical office practices should develop written guidelines that protect personal health information and data integrity, designate specific individuals who oversee the online presence and use of social media of the medical practice, and establish appropriate device use, as well as social media etiquette. Some key elements include:

  • Avoid patient interaction through open social media platforms.
  • Refrain from responding to any negative comments, complaints or care allegations posted in open media platforms.
  • Utilize secure communication channels for patient communication.
  • Monitor online and social media presence.


Require staff training. Training should be offered to all new employees and updated annually for all staff. Sessions should cover such important concerns as social networking rules and etiquette, parameters for use during working and non-working hours, potential legal and regulatory risk, patient confidentiality issues, and disciplinary consequences for misuse. Training session content and attendance should be documented.

 

MEDICAL OFFICE PRACTICE WEBSITE:

Include standard terms of use and disclaimers. Users should be informed that they are subject to the site’s terms and conditions. Clear and unambiguous language should be used and may include these, among other, essential provisions:

  • If interactive media is utilized, users understand the risks and acknowledge that postings by clinicians and staff are not intended to constitute medical diagnosis or treatment.
  • Blog postings may be edited or deleted without prior notice, and abusive, illegal, disruptive or medically misleading communications are subject to immediate removal.
  • Use and disclosure of patient healthcare information shall be implemented pursuant to patient privacy policies.
  • Appropriate limitations on liability for use of the site.
  • Avoid using superlative language, warranties, representations or guarantees.

Establish editorial controls. Written guidelines for user-posted comments should include restrictions such as the following, among others:

  • No material will infringe upon the rights of any third party.
  • Any off-topic material may be deleted.
  • No unlawful material will be posted on the site.
  • The organization reserves the right to remove posts advertising commercial products.
  • Postings cannot include specific patient data.

 

INCIDENT RESPONSE PLAN:

Medical practices should develop and implement a written plan to address social networking violations or issues that arise with the use of a website or social media platform. At a minimum, the plan should encompass crisis response, documentation and reporting protocols, follow-up action and disciplinary standards (in compliance with relevant employment laws), as applicable. The plan should be reviewed and updated at least annually.

The use of social media and a well-maintained website in a medical practice can be a useful tool to promote the constructive aspects of the practice and encourage health improvement of its healthcare community. Creating a social media plan, with appropriate follow-up, documented policies and training, will help to reduce and mitigate potential risk.


Disclaimer: This material is for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute a contract. The information, examples, and suggestions presented in this material (though reliable) should not be construed as legal or other professional advice. Before applying this information in legal situations, we recommend you consult with legal counsel or other professional advisors. Copyright 2024 Oregon Medical Association / Continental Casualty Company.