Social media and patient confidentiality

Social media as we know it today was born in 2004 with the launch of Facebook, closely followed by Twitter in 2006. Since the late 2000s we have seen substantial growth in the utilisation of platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram for marketing purposes.

As EMS practitioners and business owners, we need to be increasingly aware of our ethical obligations to our patients, their expectation of privacy, and how to manage such obligations and expectations within an effective social media marketing campaign.

The HPCSA’s Booklet 1, ‘General Ethical Guidelines for the Health Care Professions’, explains Patient Confidentiality on page 7 of the booklet. Specifically, the booklet highlights that health care practitioners should not disclose any personal or confidential information that they acquire in the course of their professional duties.

We know that social media followers love photographs, but social media managers and users need to be very careful about the type of photographs that they post, and whether these photographs breach the privacy of patients. Photographs that identify a patient’s face, vehicle registration number, home and work addresses, or custom vehicle branding, can all be considered to be breaches of patient confidentiality.

How can you use social media to promote your company without breaching patient confidentiality?

For a start, only post photographs of motor vehicle accidents where people have not been injured.

Instead of negative or compromising content, try focus on posting content that highlights other areas of the business that do not violate patient confidentiality, such as:

  • Promotional visits to schools.
  • Mock disaster training exercises.
  • Public EMS demonstrations.
  • Internal training exercises.
  • Photographs of ambulances, response vehicles, and crews with visually appealing background scenery.
  • First aid training.
  • Provision of medical services at events.
  • Daily shift changes.
  • Cleaning, disinfection, and maintenance of vehicles and equipment.

When we consider some of the suggestions above, it becomes clear that there are a number of ethical alternative options to only posting about motor vehicle accidents when it comes to intelligent social media management strategies.

An acceptable social media strategy should always consider the practitioner’s obligation to protect the privacy of his or her patients. It is indeed possible to be very creative with social media marketing in order to generate and retain public interest, while still being impeccably ethical and respectful in handling patients and their loved ones.

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