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

Chapter 3: An Introduction to Social Media Standards for Mental Health Professionals
Part 2: Social Media Risks for Psychologists
Psychologists: How to Walk the Ethical Tightrope on Social Media

If that last section made you feel as though you should abandon your social media hopes and dreams, then chin up. There are ways to comply with HIPAA and your field's ethical codes while avoiding lawsuits. Here are some tips, courtesy of the Online Therapy Institute New browser window icon.:

  • Maintain confidentiality. This means all conversations should take place in private media. It's not a good idea to exchange health information via a third-party site (e.g., any social media platform) because of the limited security features. This is especially worth noting if you offer telehealth or online treatment. Only use media that offer security encryption services. The APA and Online Therapy Institute advise against friending or following patients because it can make a confidential relationship public knowledge.
  • Avoid conflicts of interest and multiple relationships. Following or friending patients on a personal social media account can be viewed as establishing multiple relationships. Keep your work and personal accounts separate to err on the side of caution.
  • Don't solicit testimonials. When you ask patients for reviews or testimonials, you run the risk of publicly confirming that you treated that person, which can violate their privacy rights. Plus, such a request is often viewed as taking advantage of your relationship with a vulnerable client.
  • Keep your patients informed. Be sure to tell your patients how they can reach you in your very first session. It may also be helpful to outright discourage them from interacting with you on social media altogether by explaining that their confidential health information can be intercepted on these sites. If you search for information about your patients via search engines or social media, inform them about it. Be sure to only use this type of research in emergencies or to assist in a well-documented treatment plan that your client has consented to.
  • Minimize intrusions of privacy. Don't publish anything about your clients or their treatment without their consent. As we discussed earlier, even redacting identifying information may not be enough to evade a defamation or invasion of privacy lawsuit. On that note, ensure that only authorized friends and followers can read your practice's social media posts. If you finish up a session and immediately use location check-in services in your post, your network may be able to identify a client's location.
  • Document and maintain records. If you do use search engines or social media to treat patients, be sure to clearly document the circumstances for your decision. If you are ever faced with a lawsuit, these notes can help you defend yourself.

Psychologists should keep their professional and personal social media accounts separate to avoid accidentally engaging in multiple relationships with clients.

Lastly, Dr. Keely Kolmes, a psychologist, writer, and consultant, offers a social media policy New browser window icon. that you can share with your patients. It outlines how your practice conducts itself online and how you handle interacting with clients on social media sites.

Dr. Kolmes recommends understanding social media technology before you set up a professional account. For example, some sites upload "friends" and "followers" based on your email address books, which can lead to trouble if you keep patient contacts in the same place as your personal contacts.

For more tips, check out Dr. Keely Kolmes' advice for interacting on Twitter New browser window icon. and using Facebook as a mental health professional New browser window icon..

Next: Part 3: Social Media Risks for Therapists and Counselors

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