Getting It Right — Social Media, Patient Engagement, and HIPAA

Today it’s hard to run a business without a social media presence. Restaurants, grocery stores, big box stores like Home Depot, and even churches have a presence on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media sites. But what about a medical practice?

What Would You Use Social Media For?

Social media allows two-way communication with your customers — ahem, your patients. Providers may want to communicate with new patients, prior patients, or current patients. Providers may also want to communicate with their colleagues in a provider network. The right social media presencecan help your practice stay connected with current patients, reach potential new ones, increase word of mouth referrals, and become more involved in your community.

For example, when flu season starts each fall, your practice could post hand-washing tips, flu shot hours, and local flu outbreak statistics on your practice’s Facebook page, or you could tweet daily tips on flu prevention or reasons to get vaccinated. What your practice wants to put out on social media is up to you. You can post practice updates, photos of your office, or timely healthy living tips. Depending on the social media venue you’re using, you will definitely want to include your address, phone number, and practice hours. Provider profiles are a great touch too. Given the millennium we’re in, your practice probably has a website covering all this — but you can use Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and other social media to link back to it.

Think Your Practice Isn’t on Facebook? Think Again!

As I researched this post, I checked Facebook and Instagram for a social media presence from my own doctor’s practice. Though the hospital system that owns the practice has a fairly vigorous and very carefully curated presence on every social media channel I could think of, other than the practice website, I could only find my doctor’s practice on Facebook. But that was fine with me, so while I was there on their page, I posted a review (five stars, of course!) and scrolled through the posts. I noticed that all of the posts were from patients, some with pictures of babies getting their first shots, some with “check ins” like “doctor visit for me” with a map locating the practice. (I noticed that 135 people had checked in at the practice on Facebook.) Some of the posts were pretty negative, like “Office staff is awful,” or (with a picture of the practice front door) “I need new doctor, any suggestions?”

Then I looked at the page a little more closely. I noticed the page lacked the practice’s logo or any other personalization. Then I saw, in small letters at the top, two links reading “Unofficial Page” and “Is this your business?” The mouseover on the Unofficial Page link read “This unofficial Page was created because people on Facebook have shown interest in this place or business. It’s not affiliated with or endorsed by anyone associated with (XYZ) Practice.”

Would You Let People Stand on Your Sidewalk Holding Negative Signs?

Since in this case the patients themselves posted the information — maybe even on their own personal pages, with Facebook automatically linking them to the unofficial practice page — I doubt that HIPAA violations occurred. But from a business standpoint, how would you respond if people stood on the sidewalk in front of your office holding signs saying “Find another doctor”? If you controlled the Facebook page yourself, you could stop outside posts, or simply bury any negative reviews with positive, general healthcare content.

Facebook gives businesses the opportunity to merge the unofficial page into a “Verified Page” your organization manages, or to claim and verify the existing page “with a phone call or documents.” The bottom line is, even if your practice made a thoughtful business decision to stay off Facebook to stay in HIPAA compliance, your practice may be there anyway despite your decisions. Do you want strangers speaking for your practice without the opportunity to respond and take control?

What Would You Do?

If you looked at Facebook and found an unofficial page for your practice, what would you do? Would you leave it alone or take it over? I’m curious about what you think. Please let us know in the comment box below.

Want to Promote Patient Engagement Using Social Media?

If you’re looking to beef up your practice’s social media presence while staying in compliance with the HIPAA security rule, this AudioEducator conference recording may be just what you need. You can hear the recent presentation of Paul R. Hales, attorney and expert in HIPAA compliance, delving into ways you can avoid breaches on your practice’s official (or maybe even unofficial!) social media presences. It is possible to stay HIPAA compliant while promoting your practice on social media. Let Hales tell you how! Check it out here.

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