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Could a social media post lead to a HIPAA violation?

On Behalf of | Feb 13, 2024 | Health & Health Care Law |

Nurses, physicians, phlebotomists and countless other medical professionals work very stressful jobs. Medical employers often require that they work particularly long shifts. They also face a lot of pressure from the companies that employ them and the patients that they see.

Those experiencing medical hardship are often not on their best behavior. They may lash out at the very people attempting to help them. Medical workers often come home from a long day at work feeling burned out and frustrated. Like many other people, they may turn to social media as a way to express their feelings and connect with others who understand their situation. Unfortunately, social media use could put medical professionals at risk of allegations that they have violated a key medical privacy law.

Federal rules limit information sharing

It is important for medical professionals to communicate with one another. The proper sharing of medical information can lead to more accurate diagnostic outcomes and could help medical professionals identify those engaged in drug-seeking behavior. However, healthcare providers must be very careful to protect the privacy of individual patients.

For decades, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) has restricted what information healthcare professionals share with each other and the public. Healthcare providers could potentially run afoul of HIPAA with the information that they share on social media after a long shift or an interaction with a particularly difficult patient.

What does HIPAA prohibit?

HIPAA prevents medical professionals from identifying the patients in their care or sharing information that would allow others to identify a patient and know what medical issues they have experienced. A nurse could potentially talk about a frustrating shift in which a patient vomited all over their clothing without violating HIPAA.

However, they would not be able to share any information identifying who that patient is. There is a very fine line between sharing a humorous anecdote or venting and overtly violating a patient’s right to privacy. Sometimes, workers with no bad intentions could end up accused of a HIPAA violation. Particularly if they travel in the same social circles as a patient, something that they shared online might eventually reach a patient or someone who knows that patient. Allegations of privacy violations could follow shortly thereafter.

HIPAA violations can result in both financial and licensing implications for a healthcare professional. As such, ensuring proper compliance with HIPAA, and responding proactively to allegations of violations, may help healthcare professionals protect the investments they have made in their careers.

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