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Social media usage by staff complicates hospital risk management: ASHRM panel

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PHOENIX—Risk managers at hospitals and health care facilities are facing increased usage of social media platforms by employees and patients, creating potential exposures, panelists said at the American Society for Healthcare Risk Management Annual Conference and Exhibition in Phoenix.

“Social media has really invaded our personal and professional lives,” said Pauline Barry, assistant vp of health care risk management for Allied World Assurance Co. Holdings A.G.

Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn have changed the landscape of how content is produced and consumed, she said.

“It's really transformed the monologue into a dialogue,” Ms. Barry said Monday during the session “Social Media in Healthcare: Friend or Foe?”

Social media platforms do provide benefits for hospitals, such as improving a hospital's communication with patients and its community, using them as economical marketing tools and for staff recruiting, and to facilitate effective crisis management processes, Ms. Barry said.

But social media presents overwhelming concerns for hospital risk managers, as there are “a lot of privacy issues around social media,” Ms. Barry said.

As of June 2011, 1,188 hospitals accounted for 3,952 social networking sites, Ms. Barry said, which brings to the forefront risks of privacy and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act violations.

Also, as physicians increasingly use Facebook accounts, concerns over boundary issues arise if a doctor “friends” a patient, Ms. Barry said.

The legal issues are challenging because “there is little case law out there” to provide guidance for hospital risk managers, said Gwen Stokes, assistant vp of risk management for Allied World Assurance Co.

Some of the legal concerns involve physicians with Facebook accounts posting information about a patient, or using Twitter to pass along information during surgery, Ms. Stokes said.

Other concerns include discrimination during hiring decisions based on an applicant's social media networking accounts, which often gather such information as an individual's religious beliefs, ethnicity and health information, Ms. Barry said.

It is crucial for risk managers to craft social media guidelines and policies for their employees, clearly defining what the hospital organization considers social media and communicating what happens when certain aspects of the policy are violated, the panelists said.

To guide the process of establishing policies, it is important for hospital organizations to create a committee involving various departments of the hospital and to develop content using the same tone as existing policies, panelist said.