The emergence of technologies such as social media and texting in healthcare has created a quandary in many organizations. On one hand, these technologies can provide practitioners with a tool through which they can communicate with other healthcare professionals in a faster and more concise manner. On the other, these platforms lack the necessary security measures to ensure the confidentiality of patient information and compliance with HIPAA regulations.
Despite both the widespread use of text messaging and social media in the daily processes of many practitioners, and security and compliance concerns surrounding these technologies, many organizations have not yet created new media policies pertaining to texting, social media, blogging and other platforms. With direction and guidelines lacking, a significant gray area exists in the world of healthcare technology; leaving many providers wondering how they can utilize these tools while still ensuring the privacy of patients and remaining HIPAA compliant?
In this article, we will explore both the benefits and risks associated with social media and related technologies in healthcare, as well as practical strategies for utilizing these tools within the boundaries of HIPAA.
Assessing the Situation
It can be difficult to categorize the more informal technology utilized by today’s healthcare providers – simply referring to “technology” is far too broad, as there are a number of technology solutions utilized in healthcare – from EKGs to EMRs. However, lumping the tools under the term “social media” is much too narrow, as it does not typically capture uses such as text messaging or blogging. For the purposes of this article, we will use a more all-encompassing term – “new media.” Often defined as a, “means of mass communication using digital technologies such as the Internet,” new media captures tools commonly used in the healthcare setting, such as blogs, social media and text messaging.
The Benefits of New Media in Healthcare
Outlined below are a few key benefits of new media across various technology offerings.
It should come as no surprise that social media helps drive engagement, as most networks are designed to do just that. Research consistently shows that patients who are engaged and involved in their care experience better outcomes. Social media provides practitioners with a tool to connect and engage with patients beyond the walls of the care facility. Through regular updates and messaging capabilities, physicians and other providers can be kept abreast of a patient’s progress, choices and concerns post-intervention.
Social media networks can also serve as effective tools for networking and professional development. Many providers share insights, information, opinions, and experiences with their extended networks of peers and colleagues via social media. Some providers even establish and build their referral networks online.
Blogs, much like this one, can prove to be useful tools in reaching both broad and specific audiences with useful information and insights. Blogs can also build communities around ideas and content that can be easily accessed and shared.
In healthcare, blogs can provide patients with valuable information about a healthcare organization, or insights and advice on their specific condition.
Text messaging has become one of the most convenient and trusted means of communication in today’s digital world. The healthcare community has certainly taken notice and was quick to adopt texting as an effective method of conveying critical information quickly and concisely.
For example, it is not uncommon for physicians to be notified to contact a patient or receive updates on a case via text message. These text messages are often detailed – including information such as the patient’s room number and name, allowing the physician to access the patient’s chart prior to contacting him or her.
The issues in the example of physician communication via text provided above may seem fairly obvious. If the physician is communicating with other medical staff from his or her personal cell phone, the device is likely not encrypted, representing a significant security risk. The vulnerability in this exchange is further compounded if both parties transmitting patient information by text are doing so via their own personal devices.
Protected Health Information (PHI)
The chief concern providers face in regard to technology is maintaining compliance while exchanging PHI. Disclosing PHI constitutes a HIPAA violation and can result in hefty fines, even if the information is shared inadvertently. For example, photos or videos containing enough information to identify a patient can land practitioners in hot water.
The Internet is a great tool for providing and accessing information, but physicians and other caregivers should exercise extreme caution when providing medical advice via social media or other channels. Licensing laws are one area in particular where physicians may be at risk when providing medical advice online. For example, if a physician offers medical advice to a patient via social media, but he or she is not licensed in the patient’s state, the physician may be in violation of that state’s laws.
So, what’s a Tech-Savvy Provider to do?
Despite the risks and concerns related to new media in healthcare, these tools can be invaluable for providers in both communicating with patients and colleagues and managing their organization’s online offerings and reputation.
Below are a few tips to help you ensure your technology use continues to benefit your practice while remaining compliant and ensuring the security of patient information.
Create a comprehensive social media policy and ensure staff understands what it entails and requires.
Offer HIPAA training to staff, specifically within the context of new media. This training should present practical examples of the right and wrong ways to use technology and what scenarios would be considered HIPAA violations.
Consider working with legal counsel and the compliance department to create a system through which content is reviewed and approved prior to posting.
Conduct regular compliance audits to ensure that team members are using technology tools properly and appropriately.
Develop a content strategy, which defines the frequency and focus of social media posts to help guide the organization’s efforts.
Actively monitor social media activity and create alerts to identify words or patterns that could represent non-compliance with HIPAA rules.
Determine how the success and effectiveness of new media usage will be measured and create a tracking system.
Be prepared - in the worst-case scenario of an audit or lawsuit, it is important to have all electronic communications and devices ready for review.
Technology such as text messaging and social media are invaluable tools for today’s healthcare provider. However, it is important to remain cognizant of the inherent risks these technologies represent. By referencing the tips outlined above and implementing the practical strategies discussed in this article, you can enjoy the benefits of new media, while ensuring compliance and adhering to HIPAA regulations.
The Right Tool for the Job
Fortunately, mobile technologies also exist that are designed specifically around HIPAA compliance. The ImageMover Mobile app provides a fast, simple, HIPAA-compliant method of moving medical images. Contact ImageMoverMD today to learn how this innovative technology can integrate into your communications practices and bring added efficiency to your patient rounds.