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

Chapter 3: An Introduction to Social Media Standards for Mental Health Professionals
Part 3: Social Media Risks for Therapists and Counselors
Counselors and Therapists: Tips for Avoiding Social Media Lawsuits

You've worked hard to build your reputation as a mental health counselor or therapist. After years of schooling, experience, and fieldwork, you also know that the stakes are high for professionals who are beholden to HIPAA laws and ethical codes. One misstep online, and all your credibility could be gone. Plus, a lawsuit against your practice would make it hard to recover.

So how can you avoid getting sued over a tweet or blog you publish on social media networks?

  • Always follow the informed consent process. As you may already know, this involves disclosing your distance counseling credentials, physical location of your practice, contact information, the risks and benefits of engaging in the use of distance counseling via online platforms, response times, and emergency procedures in your absence.
  • Separate professional and personal social media accounts. The ACA recommends [PDF] New browser window icon. separating professional and personal profiles. Counselors and therapists should respect the privacy of their clients' social media profiles unless they have consent to look.
  • Don't offer professional advice to those who aren't clients. If you run a blog or use your professional social media profiles to discuss mental health issues, there's a chance that someone could seek out your advice online. It may be tempting to quickly address their question and move on, but doing so can make you liable for the outcome of that counsel.
  • Don't tweet or post status updates about difficult patients. Of course, everyone needs an outlet. But even if you redact your patient's name, they could still be identified. Plus, HIPAA prohibits identifying treatment dates, and if you post right after a patient leaves a session, a wily lawyer may be able to argue that you inadvertently let your audience of followers know when the client in question was being treated.
  • Know that redacting identifying information may not be enough. In the digital age, it's easier than ever to track down omitted information. If you blog about a particularly interesting client case, its uniqueness may be enough for someone on your social network to reasonably identify the client. As a workaround, some mental health professionals resort to using composite cases when blogging to better protect their patients' privacy. That brings us to the next point…
  • Always ask for a client's consent before using their situation as a case study. This is doubly true if you plan to publish the study online, on a blog, or in a book.
  • Don't solicit testimonials from current clients. Though this piece of advice may be common sense to you — current clients may, after all, be vulnerable to your influence — this is a pretty gray area where social media is concerned. For example, if you create a Facebook page for your practice and a current client "likes" that page, is it considered a tacit endorsement? Some experts in your field think so, and such an incident may call your reputation into question if you're ever sued for malpractice.

Distance therapists must be careful to follow the rules of informed consent with clients.

Lastly, know that there's no silver bullet for preventing malpractice lawsuits. Instead, you must do what you can to conduct yourself appropriately in any setting — in person or online — and manage risks that fall within your scope of control. So in addition to implementing these best practices while using social media, be sure you also have a safety net in place in case your best efforts aren't enough.

For instance, Malpractice Insurance can step in when your counseling or therapy practice is sued over…

  • Failing to follow informed consent procedures.
  • Failing to protect a client's sensitive mental health information.
  • Engaging in inappropriate relationships with clients.
  • Other breaches of accepted standards of care.

Malpractice Insurance can help pay for legal expenses if your counseling practice is sued over breaching accepted standards of care.

Your policy can help pay for legal defense fees, settlements or judgments, and other court costs, which can make the difference between your practice surviving and closing its doors for good. It can also pay for expenses and fines that accompany ethical violation hearings.

Next: Chapter 4: Other Technological Risks for Mental Health Professionals

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