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Social Media in Neurosurgery: Are You HIPAA Compliant?

Kris.colenGuest post from
Chaim B. Colen, MD (left)
Chair of the Young Physicians Representative Section of the CSNS
Grosse Pointe Woods, MI
and
Kristopher T. Kimmell (right)
Neurosurgical Resident, University of Rochester Medical Center
Rochester, NY

The business of medicine is increasingly performed electronically. A wide variety of devices provide neurosurgeons with patient information right at their fingertips. Mobile technologies and social media offer tremendous potential to enhance neurosurgical practice and augment patients’ involvement in their care. However, there are two particular issues that neurosurgeons must give heed to when harnessing the power of mobile technologies and social media. The first is potential breaches of patient personal health information (PHI). The second is to maintain professional conduct in the use of social media for advocacy, marketing, and patient outreach.

Violations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, can come with substantial financial penalties. Fines from the Department of Health and Human Services for HIPAA breeches can easily reach six figures, irrespective of any civil liability. Neurosurgeons must be aware that they are responsible for their employees’ use of social media as well. An OB/GYN practice in Pennsylvania nearly ran afoul of HIPAA after an employee posted derogatory comments about patients on Facebook. Neurosurgeons should familiarize themselves with the keys aspects of HIPAA regulations as they relate to the use of electronic devices and social media. Detailed information can be found at the HHS HIPPA website by clicking here.

iphoneSocial media websites represent another avenue for PHI breaches in medicine. Physicians report high rates of use of social media websites (almost 90 percent by one report). Social media is being accessed by physicians not only for personal use but increasingly for professional networking. On platforms like Sermo or Doximity, physicians can engage in real-time case discussion with colleagues on challenging diagnoses or debate therapeutic options. Moreover, online patient communities have become tremendous forces for patient education and advocacy and can represent a great opportunity for providers to reach out to new patients and increase patient awareness and adherence. However, social media does present challenges for providers. The Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) recently published Model Policy Guidelines for the Appropriate Use of Social Media and Social Networking in Medical Practice for physicians. The FSMB Guidelines point out that physicians may be subject to disciplinary action by their medical board for inappropriate use of social media with the potential for license revocation in cases of flagrant violations. Similar to HIPAA breeches, neurosurgeons are monetarily liable for inappropriate social media use by themselves and their employees.

Most healthcare institutions have well-established policies and guidelines to prevent HIPAA violations. Some medical centers have also developed social media policies. Neurosurgeons should work closely with their own institutions to adopt appropriate practices and procedures. Ultimately neurosurgeons are responsible for their own use of mobile technologies and social media to carry out the practice of neurosurgery. Below are some things to consider in using mobile technologies and social media in your practice:

• Make sure that all devices (smartphones, tablets, laptops, etc) are password protected
• Take every precaution to protect patient’s privacy
• Provide candid disclosure of conflict of interest
• Avoid posting information that could be taken out of context
• Maintain an atmosphere of professionalism at all times

There is no question that social media and mobile technologies have dramatically impacted the way we communicate. And, even though these tools add valuable knowledge to a physician’s toolbox, it’s important for neurosurgeons to be mindful of the responsibility associated with them.

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