Health professionals need to pay special attention to Facebook etiquette. These days, almost everyone is on Facebook. It is a great tool for keeping up with distant friends and relatives—those we don't see every day. But what if a patient sends you a friend request? Is there special etiquette for nurses and other healthcare professionals? Actually, there is! Here's a rundown of things to keep in mind before you accept that request:
Privacy, Confidentiality and Professional Liability
The use of social media tools like Facebook present a problem for healthcare workers—privacy. HIPAA laws are not limited to the workplace and can be especially tricky when corresponding with a patient on a social network. Imagine that your patient posts to Facebook that she feels better. It would probably be okay if you responded with "I'm so glad to hear that," but if you were to mention her care or medication, then you would have violated her privacy rights. Also consider that patients might want to ask you questions about their health. Even if this is done via private messaging, it can still turn into an issue of professional liability.
Even if you aren't friends with any of your patients, discussing patient care online can lead to trouble. Any personal health information or identifiers that could lead to another person online determining whom you are discussing is strictly off-limits. While you might think that mentioning your 94 year old patient is harmless, age is considered to be an identifier in some situations. You may be making what you think is the most innocent comment in the world, but intention doesn't matter when it comes to breaching patient confidentiality.
Check to see whether your employer has a policy on this subject. While institutions may not have rules that strictly forbid this, some may discourage this type of relationship because it blurs the line between patient and provider. Your patients may be better off not knowing too much about your personal life, and there are probably some things you would rather not know about them, as well.
Social Media as a Character Reference
And finally, even nursing students and prospective students need to take special heed of Facebook etiquette. It is common for nursing programs to look at applicants' social media pages to get an idea of their character. A nursing program might pass on an applicant who frequently posts pictures of himself engaging in questionable behavior. This idea can be extended to nurses who are interviewing for jobs. Any negative references to previous employers can cast a bad light on an applicant.
Misuse of social media has resulted in nurses being disciplined, fired, and even held liable for monetary penalties, but has also kept prospective nurses out of the profession. If you want to learn more about Facebook etiquette or the issue of using social media, you can see the National Council of State Boards of Nursing's "A Nurse's Guide to the Use of Social Media", which can be found on their website. While this guide refers primarily to issues of privacy, it is helpful for understanding the personal liability and consequences that can result from a careless comment—whether harm was intended or not.
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