The online world is growing. Facebook now boasts a “population” larger than the United States. Thousands of veterinarians are currently taking advantage of social media (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, LinkedIn, &c.) and smartphones. It is important to take a brief look at some important issues and areas of concern for veterinary professionals using or considering the use of social media to build and promote their public, patient, and employee relationships.
The advantages of a strong social media presence are clear. Information may be shared with colleagues to sustain camaraderie, with patients to strengthen vet-patient relationships, and with the public to bolster your reputation.
It is vitally important to consult with your legal advisers early and often when bringing your professional presence to an online forum.
If content on your social media page is also medical in nature, depending on the forum, the Health Information Portability and Accounting Act (HIPAA) may be implicated.
Members of the veterinary profession should adhere to the following guidelines:
(a) Veterinarians should be cognizant of standards of patient privacy and confidentiality that must be maintained in all environments, including online.
(b) When using the Internet for social networking,veterinarians should use privacy settings to safeguard personal information and content to the extent possible.
(c) If veterinarians interact with patients on the Internet, they must maintain appropriate boundaries of the patient-vet relationship.
(d) To maintain appropriate professional boundaries veterinarians should consider separating personal and professional content online.
(e) Vets must recognize that actions online and content posted may negatively affect their reputations among patients and colleagues, and may have consequences for their professional careers (particularly for veterinarians-in-training and veterinary students), and can undermine public trust in the veterinary profession.
When veterinary professionals provide a social media forum for patient feedback, they risk running afoul of HIPAA rules and regulations. Prior to building a social media presence, it is important to develop policies and procedures designed to guide appropriate use of the relevant forum. A few key points follow:
Under the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinic Health Act (HITECH Act), there are substantial penalties and fines that may be assessed for HIPAA violations that occur during social media exchanges. Under the HITECH Act, fines range from $100.00 to $100,000.00.
Be clear with a disclaimer that patient information is personal and should never be shared via the Internet. Inform participants that any posting that appears to be a violation of this policy will be removed.
It is important to keep your employees from becoming lax about privacy rules when it comes to social media.
Education is always the first line of defense when it comes to privacy and security safeguards. Make sure all employees are trained and up to date about the privacy and security rules and be sure to disseminate a written company policy outlining permissible and impermissible actions. Make social media training a part of your HIPAA compliance program.
Social media is a powerful tool for expanding a veterinary practice, but be aware of the potential complications. Always consult your legal adviser before branching out into online forums.
Stuart J. Oberman, Esq. handles a wide range of legal issues for the veterinary profession including employment law, practice sales, real estate transactions, lease agreements, OSHA compliance, veterinary board complaints, employment law, and entity formation.
For questions or comments regarding this article please call (770) 554-1400 or visit www.obermanlaw.com
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