Should Hospitals Block Facebook?

August 10, 2010

Yesterday’s piece in the LA Times created quite a kerfuffle in the social health infosphere.  When Facebook goes to the hospital, patients may suffer detailed some of the issues facing hospitals that have chosen to flirt with Facebook.  Stories of nurses posting images of dead patients.  Lawsuits and employee rights.  An interesting read.  It offered up a serving of fresh red meat for those health professionals looking to keep their heads squarely in the sand.

A couple of thoughts.

Blocking Facebook won’t stop stupidity. Read Paul Levy’s most recent post on the issue.  He reminds us that administrative legislation will not stop ignorance.  It’s the messenger, not the medium.  As healthcare administration’s most vocal advocate for social adoption, I’d recommend you check out Paul Levy.  His point of view is remarkable.

Good employees may not understand privacy. We need to go to the next step and address the fact that many hospitals have employees who don’t understand the privacy laws.  We still have a responsibility to protect patients from the misinformed.  While it’s suggested that you ‘can’t stop the conversation’, it’s important that hospitals take responsibility and educate their employees regarding what’s appropriate and what isn’t.  Many health professionals I know innocently believe that by simply excluding an individuals name you’ve protected their privacy.  We have work to do.

You can block but you can’t hide. The natural course of human conversation will occur whether or not hospitals block Facebook.  The adoption of smart phones has created avenues for conversation that were barely on the radar two years ago.  Tablets will soon be found in every purse.  WiFi is ubiquitous.  Technology will continue to become more accessible but the way health care employees understand patient privacy needs to stay the same.

The media never cared about patient privacy until Facebook came along. It’s interesting that privacy infractions were never a media concern until social media became sexy.  Sure the scale of Facebook exposure is greater that that of an employee sharing protected information on a cell phone.  But you have to admit that there’s a subtle element of schadenfreude surrounding these stories.  Be certain that Andrew Keen has this piece bookmarked for prominent mention in his next book.

I thought this was a generally fair piece but a little attention to social’s upside might have helped the cause.  My server isn’t big enough to hold the examples of how our connections have improved the way we see ourselves and our diseases.

Ed Bennett was quoted in the piece and amidst the chatter on Twitter yesterday afternoon suggested that we all stay calm and remain seated.  This too shall pass.


Phil Baumann August 10, 2010 at 9:59 am

Fear isn’t a strategy, is it?

I think a lot of these stories get attention because of the fear they feed on.

It’s totally understandable why some healthcare orgs are nervous about the Social Web – there are legitimate concerns.

But those concerns need to laid out and addressed in an intelligent and informed way.

It’s hard work, and it’s in unchartered territory but over time I think these matters will be addressed.

Great post!


DrV August 10, 2010 at 10:04 am

The strategy we see is unfortunately reactionary, not proactive. I do feel that it’s reasonable for hospitals to take a cautious position until employees are trained so long as their moving towards some type of adoption. Thanks for commenting.

Phil Baumann August 11, 2010 at 8:20 am

Exactly – it’s reactive.

I wonder how many of the decision-makers on social media policy actually don’t use these media in their own personal time, or are relying on what mainstream media are saying about social media.

That’s why in these kinds of matters, public awareness and education are so vital.

Ed Bennett August 10, 2010 at 11:34 am

Bryan, thanks for the “stay calm and remain seated” comment – that’s exactly what I was thinking. We don’t want to react like the JetBlue flight attendant and hit the emergency slide :)

Despite this burst of negative coverage, I’ve noticed a positive change in the attitude of most mainstream press in the past six months. They know a large percentage of their audience use Facebook and is comfortable with social media sites. The usual scare tactics won’t work on them.

We probably have another year before these stories focus on the patient privacy violation itself, and not the communication tool that was used.


Drew Weilage August 11, 2010 at 8:35 am

The issue for hospitals is that social media tools are uncovering their management style that isn’t working so well these days: command and control.

Hospitals have waltzed themselves into a false sense that they are able to control all behavior through policy and rule making; the world today just doesn’t support that.

Bring up the concept of trusting employees and you may just get laughed at. But I don’t know if we have any other choice. Rules and policies are important but so is good decision making. Good decision making isn’t easy to write into policy.

But I do think it’s possible to trust employees–it’s just going to take hospitals changing management styles to get there.

DrV August 11, 2010 at 11:22 am

Thanks Drew. I think this is where training comes in. I really think alot of these employees just don’t realize the impact of public dialog.

Shawn Halls August 11, 2010 at 8:35 am

This is a great post! Our hospital has had patients tweeting us from their bedsides and posting on facebook from the waiting rooms. Better to be part of the conversation that sit passively by and imagine it’s not happening.

Healthcare organizations have a professional responsibility to ensure that employees know what is considered private under HIPAA, those that fail to do this may have more of a leadership issue than a privacy issue.

DrV August 11, 2010 at 11:23 am

I might even suggest that our commitment to privacy go beyond the ‘legal limits’ of HIPAA. But that’s another post.

Maya Linson August 11, 2010 at 8:55 am

Great post – I, too, was bothered by the twinge of sensationalization in the LA Times article (be afraid, be very afraid). People (media folks and their audiences) in LA have always cared about privacy stories … when they involved staff leaking info about celebrities. And that was happening long before social media or smartphones!

I think that is the point – yes the Social Web is new. But the lack of knowledge about HIPPA and people’s desire to gossip or vent or share information of any kind is not new. A full blockade on social media does not address privacy concerns and in fact may even have little impact on whether or not an employee violates HIPPA!

Healthcare OutSourcing August 12, 2010 at 10:10 am

Very rightly pointed out in one of the comments, wonder if the people/employees at hospitals do not use facebook at their own leisure time or apart from the normal duty hours.

Using Facebook does bring in privacy concerns but given the benefits of using Facebook in helping reach decisions in not only purchasing good/services but choosing government in some countries what needs to be done is to work with government/official authorities in countries to limit the details and usage of Facebook.

What do the others say?

SW September 1, 2010 at 7:57 pm

I just was in a hospital as a patient. At home I keep in touch with people through facebook. It helps me, with restricted movement, to remain connected to the world and it lifts me and the interactions with me friends bring me warmth and feelings of well being. It also enables me to post and keep people updated as to how things are. Noted, I manage my facebook ‘friends’ pretty carefully. I also have friends who don’t often check their home e-mails, using the facebook mail program more frequently. Discovering this media blocked was dismaying to me and it was not good for my state of mind while there – leaving me feeling cut off from people. I do not like to talk on the phone. People don’t always have time. E-mail can be laborious when you dont feel well. And I also like to look at the photos of family and friends which are comforting and that goes a way toward healing. It should not be blocked. It should be used responsibly and employees who abuse it reprimanded. Aside from that, the wealthier guy in the bed next to me with the 3G iPad has it, the guy with the Android phone or iPhone has it. Me, I have a wifi unit with access to hospital wifi. I do not. That’s an imbalance. And I bet most staff have internet access personal phones/devices at work with them as well.

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