Hospital staff and other health care workers have access to some of our most sensitive and personal information, and the need to protect patient privacy is nothing new–as a health care reporter in the late 1990’s I covered the passage of HIPAA, the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act. Among other things, HIPAA governs how our health information is shared among doctors, insurers, pharmacists, and others who might need our health records to make decisions about our care. With all that private info at their disposal, it feels especially creepy when health workers share our info on social networks, but it is apparently happening often–over the past year several nurses, EMTs and other staff have been fired for discussing patients online:
- Last July five nurses in Southern California were fired for discussing patient cases on Facebook
- A Detroit nurse was fired after posting on Facebook that she hoped a murder suspect in her hospital “rotted in hell” for his crime of killing a police officer
- The Associated Press reported that a New York EMT admitted to taking a photo of a woman who had been murdered, and posting it to his Facebook page. He was fired by the hospital where he worked and given 100 hours of community service, but was spared the year in jail he could have received
In each instance senior management cited HIPAA rules on patient confidentiality as reasons for the firings. But the federal government is now looking at another health care company and its social media policy after a woman was fired for complaining about her boss with coworkers on Facebook. The National Labor Relations Board will start its review of the case next week, and the outcome will have significant implications for employers and employees whatever the result.
The examples of firings above are wildly different. Discussing patient care is not the same as posting a murder victim’s photo online, but the healthcare setting seems to be taking more hits than any other industry thanks to social media. There is obviously a real need here–if nurses need to discuss patient care, how can hospitals facilitate that in a private manner among people on different shifts who serve the same group of patients? People are resourceful, and in the absence of a system they often provide their own. Facebook is a natural fit. There are plenty of tools to make this possible, but as with so many other elements in our transition to a socially networked society, adoption is mostly via trial and error and a lot of people and careers are caught in the middle.