Nurses, HIPAA, and COVID: How Can Hospitals Manage an Uptick in Social Media Firings?
As the coronavirus wears on and hospitals in the US grapple with equipment shortages, nurses and doctors alike are expressing their concerns openly on social media. This has led to a significant increase in social media firings by healthcare providers concerned about both reputation and increased panic about the virus. Reports of firings include a nurse in Detroit, a doctor in Seattle, and a rehabilitation nurse in Pennsylvania. The problem is not confined to the healthcare industry, either. Various reports include similar firings in unionized industries such as the auto, grocery, and public works industries.These attempts to plead to the public may be seen by some as a noble effort to leverage public awareness of the very real problem of PPE, ventilators, and even staffing shortages that have persisted nationwide. However, unfortunately, a nurse’s right to exercise their freedom of speech does not exempt them from being subjected to discipline from their employer or the Department of Health and Human Services (the agency that enforces HIPAA). Social media posts such as these may be in violation of HIPAA laws as they may reveal standards of care for individuals as well as broader hospital confidentiality agreements. This has some hospitals doubling down by issuing warnings or threats to healthcare workers who talk to the press about safety.This spike in firings underscores the need for hospitals and other places of employment to emphasize the importance of not only HIPAA regulations, which are primarily geared towards protecting an individual’s health information but broader hospital confidentiality policies that may not be covered under HIPAA. So how can hospitals manage their public reputations as well as internal relationships? The answer may lie in cultivating a deeper sense of mutual trust between the hospital and its employees to:
For example, a hospital may agree to:
- Communicate clearly by providing employees with regular updates and reassurances that supplies are being proactively sought and managed.
- Proactively manage feedback and regulate channels between the hospital and the press.
In exchange for their employees agreeing to:
- Abide by confidentiality agreements, HIPAA policies, and social media policies that may include a screening of their public online content.
- Immediately express concerns through proper internal channels.
One of the root causes of these public postings may be that employees do not feel heard by their employers. If healthcare workers can rest assured that their urgent feedback is being taken seriously and acted on by the hospital, then they may be less likely to exacerbate public fears by reaching out on social media or to the press. Conversely, accountability functions both ways, so on the employer’s side, it is not unwarranted to take proactive measures in reviewing confidentiality agreements periodically or using a screening service that has the capacity to monitor potential policy violations.~Over 70% of employers already understand the importance of screening online behavior. Reputation management and workplace safety are just two of the three top reasons companies seek out social media screening. Social Intel provides a brief, informative whitepaper and sample Hiring Report to help businesses understand how they can mitigate brand risk by taking proactive steps to screen their employees and prospective employees’ publicly available online information.