social media

Avoid the Potential Pitfalls of Social Media

Many doctors are using social media as a key way to communicate to patients and market their practices. However, there are legal risks of doing so. Jennifer Boyd Herlihy, an attorney who defends DCs regularly on behalf of NCMIC, has seen this firsthand.

The number of cases against doctors who likely crossed the line with their social media usage are increasing every year. Consider the following scenarios:

Scenario 1

A DC posted pictures of herself wearing lingerie on a social media website. On the site, she identified herself as a chiropractor, as well as the chiropractic college she attended. An anonymous complaint alleging inappropriate conduct was filed with the state board.

Scenario 2

A man filed a complaint with the state’s board of chiropractic against his ex-wife’s DC, alleging improper conduct by the doctor. He alleged that his wife had an affair with the DC and the involvement was the reason for their ensuing divorce. The husband attached the phone bill to the complaint, documenting hundreds of texts between the doctor and his wife, many of which were sent during the weekend and as late as 2:00 a.m. Fortunately for the DC, the board gave him the benefit of the doubt when he submitted an affidavit stating that the female patient was just a friend who he was helping get through a divorce.

Scenario 3

After a DC gave her cell phone number and email address to all patients, one patient began sending her inappropriate texts and posting suggestive comments on the DC’s website. The patient had misconstrued the DC’s intentions. Ultimately, the DC had to seek legal counsel and obtain a restraining order against the patient.

What Do These Scenarios Show?

If you’re involved in the social media world, legal issues may affect you. Anything you post, tweet or blog may come back to haunt you and be used against you in the future. There are numerous companies that can retrieve past websites and find information that has been taken down. In other words, once something is put on a social media site, it will be available indefinitely.

That’s why it’s important to look at everything you do as if you were an incoming patient—and ask yourself:

  • Is it appropriate to the patient or does it send the wrong message?
  • Would the state board find it “unprofessional”?

When in doubt, leave it out! (In other words, do not do it.)

Regulatory Considerations

It is important to remember that anything you say or write may be used against you in court or in a board allegation. That’s why you should be careful about:

  • Any guarantees on your website
  • Statements about your method of practice
  • Comments you make/images you show that could be used against you in trial or in a board action:
    • Do you need to have a drink in your hand in photos?
    • What information are you putting out there about yourself?
    • Is it too much information?
    • What is the title of the album or post?

Also be cautious of items you “like,” share or retweet. Though doing so doesn’t necessarily mean you endorse the content, it does make you appear that you approve of it. If you’re uncomfortable with what your online interaction will imply to others, don’t do it. You must be especially careful to protect the confidentiality of patients.

You should never use a patient’s name or likeness unless you have the person’s written authority. If you do not use the patient’s name but you provide information that allows others to determine the patient’s identify, there may still be a breach of confidentiality.

Example: If a patient’s unique tattoo is apparent on your website, it would be a breach of confidentiality even if you didn’t identify the person by name or show his face.

Remember, make sure your social media sites are set to private and keep your content and images on a professional level — even for those you host individually. Social media is rarely completely private, and whatever you post may become available for others to see indefinitely.

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