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Social Media Tools Under HIPAA Rules

HIPAA-compliant Social Media for TherapistsIf you've been thinking about expanding your marketing strategy by adding social media to the mix, you are on the right track. Marketing through social media is one of the fastest methods to create an online presence that can expand  your professional reach, increase your business profile, and establish you as a leader in your field or specialization.

Social networking is increasing among every age group, an important consideration when looking at ways to reach your prospective client base and professional network through different marketing strategies.  On average, 47% of adults who use the internet are using social media to communicate with friends, family members, companies, and professional colleagues, and that number has been increasing every year within all adult age groups.*

You may be asking yourself, "Isn't social media taboo because of HIPAA regulations?" The answer is, "No!" Although therapists do have a responsibility to their patients to maintain privacy and confidentiality under HIPAA, that does not mean that you must miss out on the powerful advantages of social media marketing.

So how does social media fit into the HIPAA-compliant structure, and how can therapists employ all of the great social tools like Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Linked In, Pinterest, and your own blog without the fear of jeopardizing the client's PHI? It's easier than you think! The best way to begin your social media marketing is to develop and implement practice-wide policies (even if you are a solo practitioner) that provide guidelines toward maintaining HIPAA-compliance. Here are a few tips to help you get started:

  • Utilize the different types of privacy settings provided by each of the social media sites. When creating a business page for your practice on Facebook, carefully select the type of posting or commenting capabilities the public will have and determine how you want to manage your settings. If, for example, you choose to allow comments on your blog, you may want to maintain the right of administrative approval of all posts before they go public.
  • Supervise your social sphere. Depending on which social media you choose, visitors may have an open forum to post anything they desire. Keep an eye on your social sphere to make sure all content is accurate and suitable for social sharing. If you encounter anything questionable, consider deleting it and following up with the author of the posting directly and privately.  If you want to respond to it, just make certain that you are always maintaining client privacy and confidentiality. Lastly, never edit a user's posting. An edit to a post could result in giving you shared author credit, and as such, shared liability for the content.
  • Keep your personal social accounts separate from your professional social media presence.  Don't tweet about your family vacation on your professional Twitter account.  It is important to practice the same type of professional patient-therapist boundaries in the online arena as you practice offline in your office.
  • Publish a Terms of Use policy on all of your pages and accounts.  State your appropriate use policies, including privacy expectations and limitations. Also consider defining the purpose of the forum, explaining that the site is not for the purpose of therapeutic advice.  If you encourage community involvement in the social conversation, be aware that you could be held liable for any postings on your page or site merely due to the fact that you induced the conversation. Consider including your Terms of Use policy in your client Intake Forms.
  • Think about social media in the same way as you think of speaking in front of a crowd.  Would you dole out advice to someone at a party?  Would you refute a patient's complaint in the Sunday newspaper? Would you hold a private conversation in a restaurant or other public forum? Would someone overhearing your conversation be able to deduce confidential client information?  Would you invite a client into your home and personal life?  Even if a client publishes something about themselves that could be considered private, it does  not mean that the window is now open for you to talk freely about their HIPAA-covered information.  You are responsible for what you post online.
  • Utilize social media to help you launch a new phase in your professional career. Web-based social sites are a great place to provide commentary on a wide-range of industry-related topics and information, without being too specific about any client-therapist interactions.  Providing up-to-date healthcare information on your blog, or commenting on industry related articles, can help you become a leader in your specialty.

Social media marketing is a must in today's business landscape, and understanding how to maintain HIPAA-compliance within an unstructured social media backdrop is critical.  The good news is that maintaining HIPAA-compliance online is easily achievable because it is no different than the way you protect your client's Protected Health Information offline.

*Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project Survey, May 2011


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