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This is an excerpt from my complete, downloadable policy here.
Medical students are unique users of social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter, among others. In brief, I describe five reasons for this: 1) The information that medical students steward is particularly sensitive, the privacy of which is protected by federal legislation (HIPAA). 2) Sharing patient information is central to both the practice and culture of medicine. 3) Medical students have a lot to lose, both in terms of resources invested and future career ramifications, if found in violation of privacy rules. 4) Having matured entirely in the internet age, most today’s medical students have deeply ingrained information sharing habits that are incommensurate with the traditions of their profession. 5) There is a growing body of MD’s, healthcare workers, pharmaceutical representatives, information technology firms, and others, many with unclear motivation, who encourage medical students to engage with social media without adequately preparing them to be responsible.
In hopes of addressing these risks, this document discusses separately the means to protect students themselves, their patients, and their home institutions (medical schools, hospitals, and clinics), organized into 46 distinct points that deserve a thorough inspection and understanding.
While upholding the legal responsibilities of patient information is of primary importance, students must understand that they have ethical and professional obligations above and beyond the requirements of HIPAA legislation. These three areas are addressed separately.
1- Students may not share any “‘individually identifiable health information’… that relates to the individual’s past, present or future physical or mental health or condition… for which there is a reasonable basis to believe it can be used to identify the individual.”1 (Appendix A)
2- In addition, any shared information must be expunged of 18 identifiers, the most common of which are the following: (See appendix A for complete list)
- Location: All subdivisions smaller than state (street, city, county, zip code, etc.)
- Date: Birth dates, admission/discharge dates, encounter dates, surgery dates, etc.
- Images: Full face photographic images and any comparable images
- Age if Above 90 Years
3- Since the specifics of a case are protected, general comments about the uniqueness or other interesting features of a presentation are unacceptable.
“I saw my first case of Guillain-Barre syndrome today.”
“I got to assist in the repair of a total anomalous pulmonary venous return!”
“This lady had a birthmark that looked like China.”
“I saw a guy with a tattoo of Gandhi.”
4- Since location is protected, no information about patients may be shared on services that are location-aware, such as a Facebook profile that includes the student’s city, or tweets that are geo-tagged.
5- Since dates are protected, no postings may be referred to by time, including use of the word “today,” as in, “I participated in my first birth today!”
6- Pictures, even if not including faces or any other identifying information, are unacceptable if they relate to unique features.
7- Since age above 90 is protected, one must describe encountering a 92 year-old as “a patient over 90 years old.”
Even if the patient information has been de-identified and is therefore lawful to share, it may still be unethical or unprofessional. A student should have an adequate grasp of the special ethical issues surrounding patient care before engaging in any online discussion of experiences. The following guidelines are addressed for each major ethical principle.2
Dignity- Student doctors should empathize with patients as individuals capable of making choices based on their particular values. Patients are vulnerable by definition, and especially vulnerable when being discussed in public without the ability to represent themselves.
8- Display empathy with shared feelings rather than pronouncing judgments.
9- Don’t objectify patients as disease states; use “patient with diabetes” rather than “diabetic.” Be especially careful to avoid derisive terminology, for example “cabbage patch,” a term sometimes used in the cardiac critical care unit.
10- Don’t demean choices that patients make or the values that drive those choices. For example, never judge the cause of a patient’s obesity or motivations for smoking.
Compassion- Student doctors should demonstrate sympathy for suffering and misfortune and efforts to provide relief, without prejudice. Casually discussing experiences in the day-to-day jargon common among physicians demonstrates a lack of compassion to those patients and their families, to others suffering with those same conditions, and to all those in the caring community who empathize.
11- Don’t trivialize suffering by speaking casually about a patient experience. Comments about an operation being “cool” or showing excitement at seeing an exotic condition are inappropriate in public.
12- Even if de-identified, publicly sharing the gory details of a case, including pictures, show a lack of concern for suffering.
13- Avoid including unnecessary details (demographics, ethnicity, etc.) in support of stereotypes of certain conditions.
Confidentiality- Although confidentiality is protected by law, doctors must still pro-actively assure patients of this. A student doctor maintaining an online presence gives cause for doubt, which may discourage patients from seeking treatment and from being open about sensitive details. Therefore, such practitioners should take the extra effort to assure that their online behavior can’t be perceived as violating confidentiality.
14- Don’t make jokes or other comments that may be misinterpreted as a lapse in confidentiality.
15- Only share powerful, intimate experiences to make a powerful point for an upright cause.
16- Be extra careful to identify when you have been given permission to share information.
Honesty- Doctors are knowledge workers, and their service to society depends on trust. It is important to maintain a consistent message in the office and in public, including online.
17- Never write something that you are not confident is true. Do not promote anything that you do not truly support. Do not publish partial truths that may mislead. Do not make promises you cannot keep. When possible, offer references.
Act in the Best Interest of Patients.
18- Don’t be selfish- Online content about patients should only be shared for their ultimate benefit. As in all walks of medical life, you should always ask yourself if and how this serves patient interests before posting.
19- Don’t post details in order to impress, to achieve credibility or gravitas, to entertain, to shock, or to ridicule.
20- Be open about conflicts of interest.
21- Competence- Only offer services that you can safely and effectively provide. Do not try to offer interventions online if you lack the means to competently follow through.
22- Do not attempt to establish a therapeutic relationship online. Instead, wait until guidelines for “best practices” are established.
23- A special note on “friending”- There is no reason, at least for a student doctor, to establish a close relationship with select patients (i.e. friending on Facebook), unless you previously know the person in a personal context outside of patient care. If so, you should not discuss that patient’s care in any way.
Unlike other industries, doctors have a contract with society wherein they agree to provide services in their patients’ best interests, superseding doctors’ own gains, financial or otherwise. Doctors have a fiduciary responsibility not only to provide care at the bedside, but to advocate for patients in the public space on social justice issues like access to care and fairness of distribution and allocation of healthcare resources. This translates to several obligations in the online space.
24- Social Justice: Student doctors must develop an understanding of healthcare issues and work toward becoming comfortable in advocating for their position. Online comments about public policy should be restricted until this comfort has been reached, lest impulsive opinions both mar the discourse and come back to haunt the student later in their career.
25- Discipline: Just as society relies on the medical profession to regulate itself, student doctors should take action when they see others behave inappropriately online. When doing so, students should be mindful to communicate only with those directly involved, in private, and with great discretion. Additionally, students must recognize that they may be taking online content out of context and should therefore approach their colleagues delicately.
Medical schools and hospitals have special relationships with their communities, forged on years of intense experience, sacrifice, dedication, volunteerism, and shared community identity. As a member of such an institution, a medical student represents a variety of groups, some obvious and others less so. Since perception is reality online, students may easily find themselves unintentionally speaking on behalf of groups in inappropriate ways.
Referent Groups that student doctors implicitly represent:
Medical School: Student’s class, entire student body, faculty and staff, administration, and alumni.
Hospital: Patients—both current and past, staff, volunteers, administration, and donors.
Community: All community members who identify with the hospital and medical school as part of the place wherein they live.
The future: Since online text never dies, your comments also represent the future members of each of these groups—future students, faculty, community members, etc.—for untold years and amid shifting contexts.
26- Be familiar with your institution’s online presence and refer comments with direct links to those sources (homepage, Facebook page, etc.).
27- Check with the marketing department before conducting online activities for a group within the institution. Make sure that the presentation is in-line with the institution’s public face.
28- Refrain from any comments that you are not entirely comfortable making on behalf of the referent groups listed above.
29- Be particularly respectful when referencing your institutions. Since you are speaking in a mixed audience on behalf of a mixed audience, always reflect on how each group that you represent could interpret your comments.
30- Be polite. Address people formally, avoid casual and inappropriate language, especially when offering disagreement.
31- Be serious. Avoid spam or other off-topic content.
32- Be supportive. Avoid self-promotion for its own sake. Avoid cynicism. Be aware of your institution’s values and standards.
33- Be responsible. Avoid posting private material about any group members, including pictures or stories. Complaining about members of your provider team on Facebook is a particularly common transgression.
34- Be accurate. Make sure your statements are in accordance with actual facts and refrain from speculation. If you are not particularly knowledgeable, do not comment. If you make a mistake, address it quickly, honestly, and openly.
35- Offer content that is high quality and unique to your particular area of experience or expertise.
36- Be clear. Explicitly state that you speak only for yourself, as in “opinions are my own.” If you do weigh in on a topic related to the institution, state your role and relationship with that institution. Do use your institution’s email address for within-group correspondence so your identity is clear. Otherwise, use your personal email address.
37- If dissatisfied with an institution’s policy or action, discuss it first only with the people or representatives responsible.
Protecting Students Themselves:
All content posted online must be considered permanent, searchable, and traceable. Additionally, comments on third party services like Twitter and Facebook must be considered someone else’s intellectual property, and they are free to distribute it or otherwise utilize it as they please.
38- First and foremost, to protect yourself and your reputation, you must adhere to the above recommendations, particularly patient privacy.
39- Establishing a robust, quality online presence can create a visibility buffer, where positive content about you rises to the top of search results.
40- Do not offer medical advice, or anything that could be interpreted as medical advice.
42- Do not solicit, or interact in a way that could be interpreted as soliciting, protected health information.
43- Reflect before you post. Think about the different ways your content may be misconstrued. One mistake may be sufficient to terminate an entire career.
44- As a future physician, impulsive and uninformed comments made during training may be considered to represent you at any point later in your career.
45- Comments on topics unrelated to medicine may be considered reflective of your medical judgment and trustworthiness.
46- Comments left on other people’s content, such as blog posts, may be attached to the sentiment of those posts, even if you are expressing disagreement.