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Nurses Beware: What You Post on Social Media Could Have Grave Consequences for Your Career

Billions of people use social media, many on a daily basis. For some, social media is the first thing they check in the morning and the last thing they look at before they go to sleep. Checking social media has become so routine that people post messages and pictures without giving it a second thought. For nurses, that could be a costly mistake.

Even seemingly harmless posts can violate a patient's right to privacy and confidentiality, with severe consequences. Taking a prudent approach to social media can help nurses protect their patients and their careers. 

What Are Common Risks With Social Media? 

People typically use social media to connect with friends and family. Social media is also used for professional purposes. For example, nurses collaborate and connect with colleagues on social media. Social media can also be a way to practice self-reflection, similar to reflective journaling, which is encouraged in nursing.

Despite the beneficial uses of social media, HIPAA violations happen. HIPAA Journal lists common examples: 

  • Images and videos of patients
  • Gossip about patients
  • Details that could cause patients to be identified
  • Images taken inside healthcare facilities that show protected health information (PHI)

Violating HIPAA law can result in fines, job termination, loss of licensure, and criminal charges. Even posts that seem well-meaning can violate privacy and confidentiality. 

A Nurse's Guide to the Use of Social Media discusses the case of a hospice nurse whose cancer patient had posted about her depression. The nurse commented, "I know the last week has been difficult. Hopefully the new happy pill will help." While she may have intended to be supportive, this nurse shared PHI, a HIPAA violation.

In another case, an enthusiastic nursing student posted a photo of a pediatric patient, writing, "This is my 3-year-old leukemia patient who is bravely receiving chemotherapy! He is the reason I am so proud to be a nurse!" The student was expelled, and the nursing program was banned from the pediatric unit. The hospital faced a HIPAA violation. 

Posts that do not violate HIPAA Rules may also result in disciplinary action. American Nurse Today explains that posts that are "unbecoming" of the nursing profession fall in this category. Negative comments about co-workers is an example.

How Can RNs Avoid Social Media Missteps?

Nurses can use social media without putting patient privacy and confidentiality at risk. Keeping a few common-sense guidelines in mind can help.

  • Check privacy settings. On Facebook, for example, a post may be "public" unless the user changes the audience setting. Remember that posts can be shared with others.
  • Deleting a post may be just a click away. But the post may not disappear for good. It pays to reread posts before sharing.
  • Never share PHI. Even without sharing names, the use of text and images can result in patients being identified.
  • Maintain professional boundaries. As com points out, "Online contact with patients or former patients blurs the distinction between a professional and personal relationship."

Nurses are known for the trusting relationships they build with patients. In fact, nurses are consistently ranked the most-trusted profession in Gallup polls. Nurses have an opportunity to take the lead in shaping social media policies that protect patients. Completing an RN to BSN program can help nurses build the professional foundation they need to lead with confidence. 

Learn more about the University of Southern Indiana's online RN to BSN program.


HIPAA Journal: HIPAA Social Media Rules

NCSBN: A Nurse's Guide to the Use of Social Media Social Media, HIPAA and You

Gallup: Nurses Again Outpace Other Professions for Honesty, Ethics

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