Three Common Social Media HIPAA Questions

Time and again, certain questions arise when it comes to posting what could be considered protected health information (PHI) on social media.

Question #1: Is it okay to post pictures of just someone’s smile, tooth or gums?

This is an important question, and the answer isn’t always an easy one. When it comes to posting pictures of only a tooth or several teeth (not a smile photo), I recommend using discretion. If you are illustrating how the use of an intraoral camera detects broken-down restorations, that scenario probably won’t involve any patient information. In that case, you are focusing on the benefits of technology and not the patient’s condition. However, if you are illustrating a rare dental anomaly it may be a different story. That patient may be more sensitive to having information posted on social media, and having authorization from the patient to use the information is warranted.  Out of respect for patients, I recommend obtaining authorization for smile photos, such as illustrations of before/after bleaching, veneers, implants, etc. But if you have the slightest doubt, get patient authorization.

When it comes to protecting patient’s privacy, it’s wise to err on the side of caution.

Question #2: Can I discuss work-related activities on Facebook?

When determining whether to post work-related information on Facebook consider these points.

First, ask yourself whether what you are about to post is a productive or positive comment or simply a rant about the day’s activities. In one actual scenario, a hygienist commented on Facebook about how busy their day was and she included a picture she had taken of the day’s schedule. Patient names, phone numbers and scheduled treatment were all readable. Thankfully, someone notified her of her faux paux and she removed the post, but not before everyone in her circle saw the information. However, although she removed it, websites like Facebook make constant backups of online activity. That post still exists somewhere, and the danger of its resurfacing remains. Next, do not post proprietary information about your office, such as someone getting fired, production goals or fees, among other things. Lastly, remember even if you have restricted privacy settings on your Facebook account, your friends can still forward the post or take a screenshot and inappropriately share the information.

Question #3: Can I be personal friends with patients on Facebook?

If you were friends with a patient or a patient’s parents before they became a patient in your office, you can continue to be social media friends. As a rule of thumb, however, do not discuss their clinical information or treatment on social media. Save that for personal conversations. In addition, I would not recommend initiating a social media relationship with a patient with whom you developed a friendship during their office visits; rather encourage them to “like” the office Facebook page, follow those events and make comments there.