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

Chapter 3: An Introduction to Social Media Standards for Mental Health Professionals

In general, mental health professionals have to consider two sets of rules when implementing technology in their practices:

  1. HIPAA rules for maintaining privacy and data security.
  2. Codes of ethics outlined by their respective professional organizations.

That means the stakes are high when it comes to using social media. Remember that practitioners may be sued over HIPAA violations, and if they break their industry's code of ethics, they could lose their licensure or face other penalties. And while the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) Special Committee on Ethics and Professionalism developed guidelines for state medical boards to consider when teaching licensees about appropriate conduct while interacting via social media, email, text, and other forms of electronic communication, those guidelines aren't hard-and-fast rules that you can follow to the letter.

Instead, you have to know your risks and use your professional judgment and pay attention to the advice of the organizations built to oversee this kind of ethical gray area.

For example, the FSMB discourages medical practitioners from interacting with patients and clients on social media. Still, according to a survey by QuantiaMD [PDF] New browser window icon., 67 percent of practitioners use social media for professional purposes. Plus, other research compiled by the FSMB found that…

  • 35 percent of medical practitioners have gotten friend requests from patients or family members.
  • 16 percent of practitioners have visited an online profile of a patient or family member.
  • 17 percent of practitioners included enough identifying information about patients on social media that they could be identified.

From these numbers, you can see that social media use often blurs the boundaries of professionalism, and if practitioners share their work experiences online, there's the potential to violate patient privacy and confidentiality. As we explored in the last chapter, these HIPAA violations can be construed as negligence and lead to lawsuits.

67% of allied health practitioners use social media professionally.

Then there's the issue of grouping your personal and professional social media accounts together. If you're like 87 percent of the medical practitioners surveyed by QuantiaMD, you probably use social media for personal purposes. If you run your own practice, combining your personal and professional accounts may seem like a good way to streamline your online activity. But it's always safer to keep personal and professional accounts cleanly separated.

87% of medical professionals use social media for personal purposes.

There's a lot of nuance here, so we're going to break these issues down based on profession. Let's take a look at social media risks and best practices for social workers, psychologists, therapists, and counselors based on HIPAA rules and each profession's code of ethics.

Next: Part 1: Social Media Risks for Social Workers

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