Social Media Policies: What Every Practice Should Have in the Age of Mark Zuckerberg


July 18, 2011

By Michael J. Sacopulos, JD, Partner, Sacopulos, Johnson & Sacopulos

Within the past several years the way we communicate has dramatically changed. More and more people would rather check in on family and friends by viewing their Facebook page than picking up the phone. We tailor what news we want to see by using Twitter. It is now commonplace to see people staring and tapping away at their smartphones than shooting the breeze while time passes. Some would say the use of social media has become woven into the fabric of daily life.

 

“Social Media is just the new way in which word of mouth happens it the 21st century,” Director of the Mayo Clinic for Social Media Lee Aase said.

 

This nonstop communication has filtered into the daily work routine. With a half a billion people on sites like Facebook, or 8 percent of the world’s population, clearly this trend is not going away.

 

“As medical professionals we need to have guidance, helpful reminders, if nothing else. The same standards of professionalism and mutual respect and patient privacy that apply in other communications, apply here [on social media] too” Mr. Aase said.

 

As the Mayo Clinic saw the rise of social media sites appear, it also noticed an increasing number of their 56-thousand employees using them. The organization took action by creating theMayoClinicCenterfor Social Media and the Sharing Mayo Clinic Blog. The blog was instituted as a place for patients and employees to share their stories about their experiences.

 

But not all stories or comments are posted to the blog. Some find their way onto staff personal and professional Facebook and Twitter pages. This broadcast of comments may seem innocent, but if one gets a little too mouse click happy and does not study their status before publicly posting, the results could become problematic.

 

Has the Mayo Clinic had need to use its social media policy?

 

“Certainly, there have been. There haven’t been a lot but certainly there have been needs to have personnel actions,” Mr. Aase said.

 

While Mr. Aase understandably would not get specific about cases at the Mayo Clinic, in April of this year atWesterlyHospitalinRhode Island, Dr. Alexandra Thran posted information about a patient on Facebook. Dr. Thran was careful enough to not release the patients name while using Facebook. But Dr. Thran typed enough unique information about the patient that someone was able to identify the patient. The Rhode Island Board of Medicine found Dr. Thran’s posting to be “unprofessional conduct” for revealing a patient’s personally identifiable information to third parties.

 

It is these types of situations that have perpetuated social media policies in the workplace. The Mayo Clinic has been a leader in establishing and broadcasting theirs. When it initially started to build their policy, it looked at what the tech industry had in place.

 

“You don’t have to start from scratch. You can build from other examples that are out there. I would say feel free touse our guidelines as a starting point for something you can customize for your own organization or practice,” Mr. Aase said.

 

Mayo Clinic highlights these important factors when using social media:

 

  1. Follow all applicable Mayo Clinic policies.
  2. Write in the first person.
  3. If you communicate in the public internet about Mayo Clinic or Mayo Clinic-related matters, disclose your connection with Mayo Clinic and your role at Mayo. Use a personal email address (not your mayo.edu address) as your primary means of identification.
  4. Be respectful and professional to fellow employees, business partners, competitors and patients.
  5. Ensure that your blogging and social networking activity does not interfere with your work commitments.

 

Since it posted their guidelines a few years ago, the organization has discovered a couple new measures that should be added. The following additions will be included in its guidelines in the upcoming weeks:

 

1)      Medical providers should not be ‘friending’ patients or should not be in a friend relationship.

2)      In a supervisory relationship, the supervisor should not send a friend request to a subordinate.

 

“We wouldn’t want to create a climate in which an employee may feel obligated to accept a friend request. We are saying it is fine if it goes the other way, if the employee sends a request to the manager. We don’t want to create an environment where that may be seen as something that is expected,” Mr. Aase said.

 

For more details on the May Clinic policy, visit http://sharing.mayoclinic.org/guidelines/for-mayo-clinic-employees/.

 

“People often look at social media and say how do you avoid the risk? Certainly there is risk and you need to manage that. But you also need to look at the rewards and the benefits. I think we have been able to show significant benefits for patients really improving health and information that help people make good decisions about their care. We see this [social media] as something to embrace and not something to avoid or keep at a distance,” Mr. Aase said.

 

Social media policies should be written and made generally available to staff. A written policy should include, but is not limited to the following:

 

a)         Employees and staff should agree to treat all information about the practice and patient care as confidential and will not disclose any such information to any third party without physician’s written consent.

b)         Employees should refrain from directly or indirectly publishing or airing commentary about a physician and his or her practice, expertise and/or treatment.

c)         Publishing is intended to include attribution by name, or by internally identifiable pseudonym.

d)         Employees will work to prevent the publishing or airing of commentary about physicians and/or the practice from being accessed via Internet, blogs or other electronic, print or broadcast media without prior written consent.

e)         Employees will use all reasonable efforts to prevent any member of their immediate family or acquaintance from engaging in any such activity.

f)         The policy should apply to “business associates” as defined under HIPAA.

Social media has become omnipresent and these guidelines are to help physicians, practices and hospitals as they seek to embrace or are dragged into what is a very different world in which we communicate today.

 

Michael J. Sacopulos is a partner with Sacopulos, Johnson & Sacopulos, in Terre Haute, Ind. His core expertise is in medical malpractice defense and third-party payment disputes. Mr. Sacopulos is also the general counsel for Medical Justice. He can be reached at mike_sacopulos@sacopulos.com