I’m Kate Dewhirst.

I’m a lawyer who writes about legal issues affecting healthcare in Canada

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Stop and think before you post any of the following on social media

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If you are a health care leader, at some point you have wondered about the risks of social media.

You know you need to use social media platforms to share your organizational message. And you may want to expand what you are doing though social media in order to stay relevant with your patient population like add live videos, private chat groups, online Qs and As and other engagement tools.

But every now and then you may also think about – what should I focus on as a health care leader about social media?

In a previous blog I shared examples of employees who used social media ALL WRONG and were found in a variety of ways to engage in professional misconduct online. You may need to get legal advice if you discover your team member has complained about your organization or colleagues online or engaged in illegal activity (like harassment or soliciting for drugs).

In this blog, I want to focus on social media activities that you might endorse as an organization – but need to clarify with team members how to do so professionally.

What is social media?

There are hundreds of definitions of social media.  I liked this one I found online on the website Lifewire:

Social media are web-based communication tools that enable people to interact with each other by both sharing and consuming information.

What social media activity requires a health care leader’s attention?

If your organization or your team members intend to engage in these four social media activities – stop and think before you post:

1. Sharing patient information

Sharing patient stories is a powerful way to explain how your health care services have helped individuals live better lives. Many health care organizations use storytelling as a tool on social media.

If you intend to share a patient’s story or picture on social media – pause. Answer two questions: (1) Do you have the patient’s consent? (2) Even with consent, are you sharing this information in a professional manner?

The main risk related to sharing patient information through social media is privacy compliance. Obtaining consent to share an identifiable story is non-negotiable. You also need to think about helping a patient who has agreed to share their story understand the impact of making their journey public.

And, there are additional reputational risks to consider when talking about patients online.

You need to clarify for team members that professionalism is required beyond identifiable stories. Health care professionals need to understand that merely removing someone’s identity is not sufficient when posting about health care encounters online.

Consider a team member who posts on social media:

OMG. I can’t believe I got puked on today. #hatemyjob #sogross #nurseslife

While such a post clearly doesn’t identify a patient – it’s also not at all professional. And if the “puker” happens to read this post on social media, they may be embarrassed, hurt, or angry and the post can result in a poor therapeutic relationship and complaints. These kinds of references to patient encounters in health care environments can undermine your organizational reputation even if they are posted from a team member’s personal social media account.

2. Providing clinical advice

Health leaders and clinicians need to carefully navigate the fine line between providing general information to the public and using social media as a vehicle to create a therapeutic relationship.

You remain responsible for that which you post on social media. Like any other way in which you share clinical information – you are responsible for everything you put out into the world. But, depending on how you frame the social media activity of “providing advice” – you could also inadvertently create a therapeutic relationship where a listener or reader relies to their detriment on your pithy social media post (where you failed to provide the whole context for your advice).

Consider the cautionary tale of Christina Papadopoulos who was disciplined for professional misconduct by the College of Psychologists of Ontario after sharing her views on a podcast.  The College concluded that she was promoting clinical advice that was not condoned by the College and its clinical guidelines.

Be clear in social media forums like “ask the expert” and discussion boards what the limits are of the engagement.  It is impossible for you to understand the whole backstory for a person if you are engaged in a twitter conversation.  Be careful not to overstate your “advice” and make sure participants know the limits of the relationship.

3.  Using other people’s content

While you don’t need to go to law school and specialize in intellectual property protection, health leaders should exercise caution when posting other people’s content on their social media platforms. And by that I mean, other people’s pictures, logos and ideas.

Make sure your team members know your rules about using photos, cartoons and quotes that belong to others.  Give them guidelines about where they can buy images to use in social media – or where they can get royalty free images.  Make sure they don’t forget to reference the source of the great quote used to promote your services.  Make sure they aren’t using protected intellectual property without approval: like using the closely protected five Olympic rings image when promoting a clinic or debate or program.

4. Delivering emergency updates and communicating in a crisis

As we have seen in recent natural disasters around the world, social media can be used as a lifeline.  Your health care organization will need to communicate in a crisis and using social media might be a vital part of your communication strategy.  During the emergency is not the time your team members should learn for the first time who is responsible for public messaging and what will be shared.  Health leaders need an emergency communication plan that includes social media strategies for your organization.  Who will be responsible to share the information? on what platforms will the message be communicated? who needs to be consulted to approve the messages?

I offer in-person and online training for managers and teams on social media.  Let me know if you are interested!!



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Speaking event March 25, 2020

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