Social media liability



Question: Which of the following is incorrect?

A. Medical malpractice lawsuits arising out of social media interactions are still uncommon.

B. Comments shared by an ex-employee with friends on Facebook may breach doctor-patient confidentiality, with liability imputed to the doctor-employer.

C. Using the same platform, a doctor must promptly rebut disparaging comments on Yelp in order to protect his or her reputation.

D. An employment contract should cover matters concerning confidentiality and privacy.

E. Staff should use office computers only for work-related activities.

Answer: C. Physicians’ widespread use of social media sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter has spawned novel issues of professional liability. Use of such media, augmented by ubiquitous mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, typically involves physician-to-physician and physician-to-patient communications but may also be personal in nature. Many patients have approached their doctors to "friend" them on Facebook. About a third of all doctors are said to have received such requests, and about a quarter have accepted. Other doctors are regular or occasional bloggers, offering views both medical and nonmedical.

While embracing the immense value of social media, the physician must remain mindful of the legal and ethical risks that such networking poses. State medical boards are facing increasing complaints of online professional breach, and civil lawsuits can be expected to mount.

Allegations of medical malpractice can arise if there is a showing that negligent conduct has caused an injury of some kind. Though currently uncommon, one can expect such lawsuits to proliferate. To be sure, there will be arguments about whether there exists a doctor-patient relationship from which a duty of care arises (Internal Medicine News, "Liability in the Internet Age," April 15, 2011, p. 74), but liability can come about in unexpected ways.

In a recent Massachusetts case, a pediatrician faced a malpractice suit that alleged a failure to diagnose diabetes and diabetic ketoacidosis. An offer to settle followed quickly once it was realized that the plaintiff’s attorney had discovered the defendant’s publicly blogged details about his deposition and trial preparation (American Medical News, "Internet won’t protect your secret identity," Aug. 13, 2007) Lesson: Use the blogosphere to educate, not vent; and never presume to successfully hide behind the veil of anonymity.

There are other legal issues. For example, some state employment laws forbid navigating the Internet in search of an applicant’s medical or criminal history, as such searches are permissible only after a tentative job offer has been made.

Another legal issue involves staff who use office computers or mobile devices for personal activities. This should be pointedly forbidden, as any negligence may be imputed to the doctor under the doctrine of vicarious liability. Current or former staff may unwittingly or even intentionally disclose confidential details of patients. So, as a risk-management strategy, employment contracts should address all of these matters proactively.

In addition to civil suits by an aggrieved patient and/or family, the doctor may face civil and criminal sanctions under the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and other statutes. All professional liability carriers are keen to assist their insured members in formulating office policies and procedures that govern privacy, confidentiality, and disclosure, and practitioners should take advantage of this service.

The ethics surrounding social media typically center on privacy;, for example, should a liver transplant physician use social media to ferret out a patient’s recent drinking habits?

Where there is professional misconduct arising out of Internet postings, a state medical board may launch an investigation. A preliminary study indicates that the most common violations are inappropriate patient communication of a sexual nature, Internet prescribing for unknown individuals, and online misrepresentation of credentials (JAMA 2012;307:1141-2).

In a recent illustrative article, the same authors posed 10 hypothetical scenarios to determine the need for disciplinary action (Ann. Int. Med. 2013;158:124-30). The evaluators deemed 4 of the 10 definitely worthy of investigation: misleading information about clinical outcomes, using images without consent, misrepresenting credentials, and inappropriately contacting patients. Other vignettes thought to be probably reprehensible were the depiction of alcohol intoxication, violating patient confidentiality, and using discriminatory speech. There was even concern raised regarding derogatory speech toward patients, showing alcohol use without intoxication, and providing clinical narratives without violating confidentiality.

Errant behavior may be observed early in one’s training. Most medical schools have identified instances of unprofessional student online postings such as breaching patient confidentiality, using profane or discriminatory language, depiction of intoxication, and sexually suggestive material (JAMA 2009;302:1309-15).

It may be impossible to separate personal from professional use of social media, so it has been suggested that ethical guidelines be framed in terms of appropriateness rather than boundaries (JAMA 2013;310:581-2).


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