The use of different social media platforms has risen over the years. While these platforms may not seem significant to the healthcare sector, they play an essential role in communication between professionals and patients. Sometimes, patients make crucial decisions through social media instead of making long trips to the healthcare facility. Social media is an essential resource within the healthcare industry. However, it is a risky platform to share information, and your actions could result in severe HIPAA violations.

Although Health Insurance Portability and Accountability(HIPAA)  guidelines were passed before the introduction of social media, many of these laws apply to conduct that most professionals may tend to engage in. Social media is one of the places where the information you provide could be subject to profound misunderstanding. Therefore, as a medical professional, you must exercise extreme caution when disclosing and sharing health-related information online. 

Federal and state laws protect patient information from accidental or intentional disclosure by medical practitioners. Therefore, a violation of HIPAA on social media attracts severe civil and criminal penalties. If you have been accused of such a violation, you must seek the guidance of a professional license defense attorney.

Overview of HIPAA Violations on Social Media

Although HIPAA is not an old law, it doesn’t predate the rise of social media. This law’s violations through social media are just as grave as other violations. HIPAA was introduced several years ago, even before launching platforms like Facebook and Instagram. Therefore, there is no specific section of the HIPAA to address the particular sites.

However, for all communications on healthcare, the HIPAA guidelines are applicable. When an employee of a healthcare facility uses the media to share information, they need to be careful not to violate any HIPAA rules. All healthcare organizations must implement a social media policy that all employees must follow to reduce the risk of these violations.

The Biggest HIPAA rule on social media centers around the disclosure of protected health information. Patient information should not be disclosed on Instagram, Facebook, or other private social media platforms.

While you can discuss what you do at work and give healthcare tips, posting private information on a patient, including their names, address, and medical records, is illegal and can attract serious and life-changing consequences.

Common Social Media HIPAA Violations

While discovering new ways to share your health-related knowledge and experiences, it is crucial to understand that reckless posting of patient information violates the HIPAA rules. Having sole responsibility for yourself or your medical practice, you need to know what constitutes a violation to avoid it. Some of the prevalent HIPAA violations and social media include:

Sharing Patient Gossip

When you encounter a unique or captivating case about your practice, it is tempting to share it online. Sometimes, you want to know if another professional has encountered the same and how they handled the matter. Unfortunately, such an action is considered gossip and severely violates the guidelines. You risked facing disciplinary action even when your post or the information you provided was not meant for gossip. Therefore, when you enquire about different aspects of your field, you should avoid including patient information.

Posting Photos and Videos with Patients in Them

Posting a video or video yourself at your office desk is not prohibited. However, when you include patients in these photos, you risk investigations for a violation. If you notice that a patient is identifiable from your posts, you should delete the post and possibly report it to your organization. Additionally, posting images of PHI is also a severe violation.

Inclusion of Identifiable Information on Social Media

As you share your achievements, you should avoid including any information that could cause another person to identify a particular patient. For example, if you have helped someone lose weight, you should keep it general and refrain from showing the image of the patient or disclosing their name and address.

Posting Images without a Written Consent

There is an exception to how and when you can post videos or photos with patients. If a patient consents to be in your posts, you cannot be cited for violating HIPAA. Images are a great way of sharing proof of favorable outcomes in your medical field. Therefore, you can request a patient’s permission to take a video or a picture of their progress from a particular condition.

Posting on Private Groups

The issue of social media violations on HIPAA is not limited to corporate platforms. Posting images, videos, or texts within a private group is a violation. Any information you cannot post on a public feed should not appear on private groups. Since you cannot control the security breaches that social media platforms experience, it would be wise to avoid disclosing information here altogether.

Penalties for HIPAA Violations on Social Media

HIPAA violations are often discovered through self-reporting or third-party investigations. All healthcare companies are required to carry out regular internal audits and report any violations that they commit or are committed by other staff members. The Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights will investigate any reporting on the violations.

HIPAA violations on social media can be treated as civil or criminal depending on the circumstances of your case. The OCR is responsible for issuing the penalties for these violations, and they may include fines, corrective action plans, and sometimes jail time.

Civil Penalties

A civil violation arises when you unintentionally disclose patient information on social media or do not know that your actions constitute a HIPAA violation. The penalty, in this case, is a fine ranging from:

  • Up to $100 for individuals who are unaware of their violation
  • A maximum of $1,000 if you had reasonable cause for your actions. For example, if you post a patient’s condition on social media to seek the insight of other professionals, you violate HIPAA regulations. 
  • A minimum of $10,000 if you acted with willful neglect but worked to fix the issues you caused. This includes deleting any information you may have disclosed or apologized to the alleged victim.
  • A minimum of $50,000 if you acted neglectfully and failed to take any steps toward rectifying the issue

Criminal Penalties

You can suffer criminal penalties when you obtain patient Information without consent. The criminal penalties are divided into three tiers:

  • A one-year jail sentence and up to $50,000 in fines for intentionally obtaining and disclosing patient information
  • A maximum of five years in jail and $100,000 in fines for obtaining PHI under the pretense
  • A ten-year jail sentence and fines of up to $250,000 for obtaining PHI with malicious intent or for personal use

How to Avoid HIPAA Violations on Social Media

Due to the potential consequences of violating the HIPAA rules by posting information on social media platforms, organizations can’t be too careful when enforcing the policies. If you are unsure whether your post will result in a violation, it would be wise to avoid it altogether. If you operate a healthcare organization, you can prevent breaches in your organizations by employing the following tips:

Set Policies for Social Media Use

The first thing you need to do is to set specific rules on the use of social media. Although you can allow the employees to use social media and even provide materials like computers and phones, you can regulate the information they share on these platforms. By implementing these policies, you avoid instances of unnecessary patient gossip from reaching onto these platforms. Additionally, you can encourage the employees to be ethical. As you set your policies, you must give real examples of situations your organization will not tolerate.

Set Penalties for the Violations

Setting the penalties for HIPAA violations on social media in your organization will reinforce the importance of these guidelines for everyone. With these penalties known to all employees, you can take necessary measures when the violations occur. Although the state and federal governments have established their guidelines, setting some for the company allows you to take immediate action. Whatever your employees do may reflect negatively on your organization. Therefore, it is vital to exercise caution.

Ask for Reports

If you operate a large organization, monitoring the activities of all the employees could prove challenging. Therefore, you can request that the employed offer anonymous reports for any violation from them or their colleagues.

Avoid Private Communications on Social Media

Although your patients want to communicate with you on your social media pages, you should limit it to general information like office hours and the services you provide at your facility. You should avoid discussing patient records and health conditions on social media. Additionally, you should avoid offering individualized advice to patients on social media. Instead, you can direct these patients to the company’s email, where you can handle their concerns.

Separate Personal and Professional Accounts

Establishing a social media platform for your healthcare organization is a great way to market your services and encourage people to come to you. Additionally, you can share helpful medical tips. However, you should always keep the information professional and avoid giving personal information about patients. You can apply this by separating professional accounts from private ones. This helps avoid responses and reactions that could result in violations.

If you run a social media account for your practice, ensure that you monitor what your employee posts or the responses they give to patients who ask questions on these platforms. By monitoring the activities on these accounts, you can remove anything that seems to violate patient privacy. If a patient attempts to ask personalized questions on these platforms, you can encourage them to visit you or contact the facility privately.

Create a Marketing Policy

You can avoid HIPAA violations by creating marketing policies that your employees must follow when using company accounts. Additionally, you can designate specific people to handle your accounts so they can review every post before it appears on the sites. While including your achievements as a marketing strategy is tempting, always avoid disclosing patient information.

Review the Policies

The world of social media is advancing each day. Therefore, you can avoid social media violations by constantly reviewing and updating organizational policies. Your employees can freely engage in these platforms without violating the rules.

As an employee in a healthcare facility, it is essential to undress that HIPAA isolations on social media can significantly affect your life. In severe cases, you can suffer a suspension or revocation of your professional license. Some of the precautions you can take when posting information on social media include:

  • Refrain from discussing patients on social media. Any conversation you cannot have at the coffee shop or the elevator does not do it on social media.
  • Do not share workplace frustrations online. There are no specific guidelines on HIPAA on social media. Therefore, the information you may perceive as innocent could be misinterpreted and attract an investigation for a violation.
  • Avoid discussing patient information through direct social media messages.
  • Monitor the comments on your posts and block or delete anything that attracts compromising responses

Although there are many risks of violations, with proper precautions, you can still use social media to benefit the public and your healthcare organization. Some of the ways through which special media provides benefit include:

  • Offer general healthcare tips that are helpful to all
  • Share research findings in your file 
  • Advertise upcoming healthcare events for the patients to attend
  • Display awards, honors, and achievements you have made
  • Advertise discounts or special offers for your services
  • Advertise your services and avoid including PHI in those adverts

Frequently Asked Questions on HIPAA Violations on Social Media

All healthcare organizations must educate their employees and ensure that the professionals in the facility follow all the HIPAA rules. However, with the increased use of social media in our daily lives, it is challenging to recognize what behavior could constitute a violation. The following are some frequently asked questions on HIPAA violations and social media:

     1. If I Attach an Image of a Patient’s Injury Without Disclosing Identification on a Tweet, will I be under Investigation for HIPAA Violation?

Whether or not posting the image of a patient on a social media platform is unlawful depends on whether they consented to your actions. When information is shared under the conditions of consent, there is no valuation of the laws. However, if the patient knows nothing about your intention to post the image, it could be used to identify them. This can then be a basis for HIPAA violation investigations by the licensing board.

     2. Do HIPAA Regulations Apply to All Accounts?

The HIPAA rules regarding social media apply to both personal and corporate accounts. It is essential to understand that posting images or patient information on your private social media account is more of a serious violation than posting it on a corporate account. You extracted the images from a professional platform and transferred them to a personal account.

     3. Can the Covered Entities Face Punishment for Violating a Specific Rule That did not Exist?

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act regulations were introduced before launching different social media platforms. For this reason, there are no specific rules to address social media issues. However, the violations of this law on social media are covered in already existing guidelines. Posting information on social media without a patient’s consent falls under unauthorized disclosure and breach of privacy rules. Additionally, access to information, even without posting it, could still result in investigations and possible punishment for the violations.

     4. Is Training on HIPAA Only Reserved for Employees Who Can Access the HIP?

All healthcare professionals need thorough training on an organization’s social media policy. Sometimes, employees without direct access to patient information could disclose this information. Therefore, all organizations need to implement guidelines and carry out proper training.

     5. How are HIPAA Violations Monitored?

The simplest method used to monitor social media violations on HIPAA is by searching for specific information relating to the healthcare facility. Reviewing the information provided about these facilities will help determine compliance with the HIPAA rules and formulate ways to improve their compliance.

Find a Skilled Professional License Defense Attorney Near Me

There are many benefits that healthcare workers gain when using social media. The social media networks allow the organizations to interact with patients and involve them more in what is happening to their bodies. Additionally, social media can easily communicate important information, such as scheduling appointment changes. Unfortunately, with an increase in the information people disclose on these sites, there is a risk of violating the patient’s privacy and HIPAA rules.

It is very easy to violate the law with your social media posts. The State and federal governments punish healthcare professionals for violating these rules. Whether disclosing patient information was deliberate or accidental, HIPAA violations have serious criminal and civil consequences. In extreme cases, you risk losing your professional license. You must seek legal guidance if you face disciplinary action for reckless actions on social media.

At The Legal Guardian, we are dedicated to helping all healthcare professionals facing investigations by their respective licensing boards for HIPAA violations in Long Beach, CA. With our extensive experience in handling these cases, we will help you achieve the desired outcome for your situation. Call us today at 866-448-6811.