Social media and health Doctors should use social media, but carefully, lawyers say

By Rabiah Alicia Burks

American Bar Association News Service

CHICAGO -- Doctors can add some new tools to their practices: telemedicine -- which allows doctors to diagnose patients and prescribe medication online, and social media, which allows them to connect with their patients in new ways.

Though there are benefits to using social media and telemedicine to serve patients, physicians should know about the legal issues involved and exercise caution when using the new tools. Attorneys should also help healthcare facilities create policies that will help them to avoid legal risks, said Nanette Elster, attorney at Spence & Elster, P.C. in Chicago.

In response to the growing usage of social media in healthcare, Elster helped launch "Social Media & Health: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly," a program sponsored by the American Bar Association Special Committee on Bioethics and the Law. The committee will host it for a second time at the ABA Annual Meeting in Toronto, Canada, this August.

Elster offered tips for healthcare workers and their lawyers on using the new technology tools appropriately.

The benefits of using social media

Healthcare facilities are using social media to brand their companies, build community and educate the public. For public health purposes, social media can be a great educational tool for people who suffer from rare disorders.

"This could be a way for them to connect to resources they might otherwise not have access to, and also to find a community of support which can be so helpful not only for the care givers but also for the patients," Elster said.

Doctors: use caution when posting personal information

Doctors becoming friends with their patients over social media can expose their private lives and personal information.

"[Doctors] might express political viewpoints, for example in their social media community, that may be antithetical to their practice," Elster said. "That can put off folks, or they might say something personal or off-handed that then gets translated into their professional background."

Much of the information posted in social media communities becomes a permanent record and anyone can gain access to it to catch glimpses of heathcare workers' personal lives. In a worst case scenario, the information could hinder chances of a young healthcare worker getting into medical schools or residency programs.

"People who know you personally don't necessarily take things out of context when they read something on your blog or on your Facebook page, but if they don't know you personally, because they are among your professional contacts, they may misread information," Elster said. "That could interfere not only with your experience with that particular patient but also your institution's experience."

Med Students: Maintaining patients' privacy when abroad

Medical schools often offer travel abroad programs and other opportunities for students and residents to provide services and treatment to people in other countries. Participants must be careful to avoid posting pictures of their patients to social media websites. Though the posting of these photos are not meant to be malicious, it could raise privacy issues.

"Often times there are students or residents there taking pictures of what they are doing," Elster said. "While they might try to obtain verbal consent it might be awfully difficult to get the verbal consent to post on Facebook and so there are issues of privacy that really do cross borders."

Lawyers: Create social media policies

Attorneys should help their physician clients create policies that allow healthcare facilities to take advantage of social media benefits while minimizing risks. A good policy needs to be flexible, well coordinated with the institution's existing policies, clear and feasible.

"You don't want to set the moon as your goal and not be able to achieve it," Elster said.

Attorneys have to have a thorough understanding of how a facility wants to use social media, whether it for professional communication or marketing, and who within the organization will be using it.

Attorneys have to be aware of the local, state and national laws around privacy issues.

"Be prepared to make change and stay current," Elster said. "Social media is so rapidly changing we cannot have anything that is absolutely set in stone."

Lawyers: Research state laws regarding telemedicine

The increased use of telemedicine is granting physicians more opportunities to examine patients and provide prescriptions online over secure networks. As a result, attorneys need to research the state laws regarding medical licensing, prescribing medicine, unprofessional conduct and informed consent, said Donald Palmisano, chief executive officer of the Medical Association of Georgia.

Palmisano is presenting on telemedicine on June 17 at the 12th annual "Physician - Legal Issues Conference," sponsored by the American Bar Association Health Law Committee, in Chicago.

State licensing requirements and laws of professional conduct vary; some states do not allow doctors to prescribe medication without examining the patient physically first.

Attorneys should make sure all the physicians working with their clients to provide telemedicine services are also covered, and are aware of their professional liability policies.

"Make sure to review your medical malpractice policy," said Palmisano. "Not all policies cover telemedicine."

Published: Fri, Jun 24, 2011

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