Social media and health care: A new frontier

Whether it's an emergency room visit or the birth of a new baby — and everything in between — never has it been so easy to reach your personal and even professional networks on social media with updates on your own or a loved one's health status. This new reality brings with it both benefits and unintended consequences.

“It's best to always consider what your intentions are before posting, as well as the possible outcomes and consequences," advises Rita Reynolds, Chief Privacy and Freedom of Information Officer at North York General Hospital (NYGH). "When content is posted to social media platforms it never really disappears even if you delete it. It can be copied and shared over and over again.”

NYGH's responsibility in a digital world

Rita Reynolds
Rita Reynolds, Chief Privacy and Freedom of Information Officer at North York General Hospital

NYGH has developed its own social media policy to help govern the use of its social media channels like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram by staff, physicians and volunteers. As well, it has guidelines to help manage the actions of those interacting with the hospital's platforms including patients, families, visitors and the general public. 

“We live in a 24/7 world, and social media requires monitoring and enforcement of policies,” says Rita.

The hospital's Corporate Communications and Public Affairs Department monitors its social media channels ensuring content is acceptable, confidentiality is protected, and reserves the right to address and/or remove content it deems unacceptable.

When NYGH does reach out to its followers on its social media channels and communicates hospital news and helpful health-related information, it always does so with the hospital's mission, vision and values in mind.

“Social media is not the place to address or resolve patient concerns,” says Rita. “The hospital has very strong official communication channels for anyone who has a concern or complaint to bring forward; our Patient Experience Office is just one example.”

When health care professionals and volunteers provide care to patients and families, a relationship can be established. It's important that staff, physicians and volunteers not blur the lines between their professional and personal lives. They should follow the best practice of not exchanging social media contact information with those they are caring for.

Unintentionally over sharing personal information, specifically health-related private information, is to be strictly avoided.

Safeguarding your own privacy and reputation 

The concept of privacy can vary for different people. What some consider too private or inappropriate to share, others will post freely. 

“Whether your networks are big or small, be mindful that not everyone is going to agree with or appreciate what you are sharing, which can evoke a variety of reactions and responses,” says Rita. 

Unintentionally over sharing personal information, specifically health-related private information, is to be strictly avoided. Rita provides an “Overs” checklist to keep in mind that can help protect your reputation and privacy on social media:

  • Oversharing — Revealing too much information and details can make you vulnerable to fraud, identity theft and other risks.
  • Overly trusting — People whom you've never met in person, but interact with on social media, are not your “friends.”
  • Overly blunt — Being too brief in a post can lead to misunderstanding and misinterpretation.
  • Overly emotional — When someone wants to get their point across they may use more emotional, even inflammatory language, which incites conflict.
  • Overconfident — Someone may be willing to post something from the privacy of their own home that they would never say to someone in person.
  • Overestimating protection — There is no absolute control over posted content. Be vigilant in managing your privacy settings.

Remember, having an online presence means you've created a reputation and image that can be viewed instantly by many. People gather information and form opinions based on your posts. So think before you post, practise online safety, and maintain the same level of respect for others on social media as you would in person.

“Whether you're communicating personally or professionally, your reputation and the perception of your integrity are the most important things you have,” says Rita. “Protect them, they outlive you!”

This article first appeared in the September 2017 issue of The Pulse.

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