Why Social Media is Becoming Healthcare's Biggest Risk

Nurses and doctors have once again been voted the most trusted professions in the United States. While this is great news for the healthcare industry, there are also good reasons for this designation. We trust nurses and doctors with our health and safety. So when we find a provider that treats us with care, we’re relieved to find they have our best interest in mind. However, trust can be easily broken, and as new technologies transform the profession, we see two forces making that trust harder to regain.

Today, there’s a steady rise in HIPAA violations on social media putting privacy at risk, and a long-standing epidemic of toxic behavior making its way online and threatening the basic safety of patients and staff. In this article, we’ll explain how these issues play out on social media and the public web, and lay out why these mistakes are costly both for patients and the providers they trust.

HIPAA Violations in an Online World

At first glance, it seems that the emphasis on empathy in the health professions would make providers more attuned to the consequences of their behavior, especially when it comes to posting online. But in recent years, a number of stories have emerged about doctors and nurses taking their latest case study to social media. Today, more than 30% of state medical boards are fielding complaints for “online violations of patient confidentiality.” Whether it’s a physician complaining about a specific patient in their latest blog post or an emergency unit employee posting inappropriate photos of a trauma victim, more and more providers are sharing information that exposes patient privacy in a whole new way.

The costs of HIPAA violations in an online world are substantial. Given that more than 90% of healthcare practitioners are on social media and fines are as high as $1.5 million for each year that a HIPAA violation is allowed to persist, healthcare facilities are at greater risk for expensive privacy scandals than ever before. However, HIPAA violations are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the costs of inappropriate social media usage in the industry. The high cost of scandals in healthcare, along with the rates at which healthcare workers are exhibiting signs of toxic behavior online, indicate that patient privacy violations are a mere fraction of the risk indicators that present themselves on social media and the public web.

The Challenges of Social Media Behavior in Healthcare

Healthcare facilities have been dealing with sexual harassment, drug diversion, and data breaches for years. But over the last few months, we’ve seen that these longstanding issues are also presenting themselves on social media in the form of sexist tweets or demonstrated use of illicit drugs. According to our anonymized research, the average person in healthcare has far more indicators of these behaviors than people in nearly every other industry. This means that while not every person you hire is going to pose a risk, there are a handful of individuals that may negatively affect patient outcomes.

On top of that, the life-and-death stakes of many interactions in the healthcare business can increase the costs of these risky behaviors dramatically. Look no further than Anthem, which paid $115 million in settlements following a data breach in 2015, or USC, which paid $215 million—nearly double the amount—for a gynecologist’s overt and recurrent misconduct. Compared to these incidents, which stem from unchecked power and culture issues, $1.5 million per year lost to a HIPAA violation is a small price to pay. To restore trust with patients, healthcare organizations must not only consider patient privacy when thinking about online risk, but also find new ways to manage culture and safety.

Healthcare facilities are only as good as the people that operate them. If you want to keep trust in the medical profession, you may consider looking more broadly for risk indicators and ensuring your providers are “doing no harm” not just in the exam room or on the operating table, but through their digital media as well.

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