HIPAA, Social Media, and Technology
A Guide for Mental Health Professionals

Chapter 1: Health Information Online: What Your Patients Are Doing, What Professionals Are Doing

Perhaps the first step toward identifying the risks your mental health practice may experience in a digital world is to understand how your clients and fellow professionals use the Internet to manage healthcare issues. Though we could discuss the merits and drawbacks of using the Internet to access and explore health information, we won't. At the end of the day, all that matters is that people rely on digital health records and expect them to be available online.

For example, according to Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project [PDF]New browser window icon.

  • 72 percent of Internet users went online for some kind of health information in the last year.
  • 35 percent of American adults have gone online to figure out a medical condition.
  • 46 percent of those surveyed said their online findings prompted them to seek medical care.
  • 41 percent of "self diagnosers" found medical professionals confirmed their diagnosis, while 35 percent didn't get a professional opinion.
  • 11 percent of those who post online about medical concerns are specifically looking for feedback from a medical professional.

72% of Internet users search for health information online.

That doesn't mean it's only your clients and patients who are taking to the Internet to manage their health and make their lives easier. Allied health practitioners use the Internet just as much, but for different reasons:

  • Some use the Internet to answer questions online diagnosers have.
  • Some simply find it to be an easier way to reach their patients.
  • Others use blogs and social media to promote their practice, connect with other allied health professionals, and educate others about their work.

But these kinds of use can lead to malpractice suits, privacy violations, and other problems. The Federation of State Medical Board (FSMB) reports [PDF] New browser window icon. that when US Executive Directors at state medical boards were surveyed in 2010, 92 percent found violations of online professionalism reported in their jurisdiction. Specifically…

  • 69 percent of violations were over using the Internet to inappropriately contact patients.
  • 63 percent involved using the Internet to inappropriately prescribe.
  • 60 percent of violations involved misrepresenting credentials or clinical outcomes online.

92% of state medical boards reported online violations of professional standards.

For these violations, 71 percent of boards held formal disciplinary proceedings to limit, suspend, or revoke licensure. Forty percent issued informal warnings.

That's why it's essential to know how to appropriately interact with patients and clients online. You've worked too hard to build your mental health practice to leave its reputation unguarded. So when you want to connect with others online and offer advice about mental health issues, follow the FMSB's advice. It recommends that you…

  • Disclose information and explanations of how to use it for any healthcare services offered online.
  • Protect patient privacy and data, ensuring that "de-identified" data can't be connected to a patient (granted, this is harder than you might think. More on that in Chapter 3).
  • Ensure all information is truthful, current, accessible, and straightforward.

This brings us to our final point: conversations about mental health are happening online every day. Though participating in these conversations does come with risks, it also offers you the chance to build up your practice's credibility and help you connect with patients. Plus, these days, patients expect to be able to discuss their conditions with others online and to communicate electronically with practitioners via email or social media.

That means you have your work cut out for you as far as balancing professionalism, privacy laws, and client expectations. Let's take an in-depth look at how you can keep your mental health practice compliant while navigating the digital world.

Next: Chapter 2: HIPAA for Mental Health Practitioners

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