Social media policies in health care: are they going too far?

Picture 1My workplace, like many others, has put us on notice that they're developing an official social media policy. In the meantime they spoke sharply about stuff we should avoid posting about (room numbers, diagnoses, and obvious stuff like that). I wish this weren't necessary and that healthcare professionals would not need to be told this sort of thing, but, fortuitously, the day before the notice I had e-mailed a friend on Facebook and encouraged her to knock off some of the stuff she was posting (no, it wasn't me who ratted people out!). But I guess it is necessary, and I strongly support institutional social media policies---otherwise the waters are deep and murky for those of us who blog (and almost everyone uses Facebook these days). The thing that bothers me is that a lot of companies seem to be pushing these policies too far. I haven't seen the policy for my job yet because it's still being hammered out, but it does sound like they're going to say we can't say anything at all about our jobs ("had a long day today") or that might reflect badly on us as 100% upstanding individuals ("stayed drunk for 32 hours during my week off") or we'll get canned, the reasoning being that we're constantly representatives of the company. I don't think posting stuff like that is a good idea, and I'm not sure why people WANT pictures of themselves drunk on toilets with their pants down on Facebook (it's a disturbingly common sight), but there is a very fine line here.

What's the difference between such a policy and one that says employees can never go to a bar on account of people might know they work at XXX company? Can our workplaces police our activities when we're not there, outside of HIPAA violations? Indications are that they are going to try, on grounds that they can cite "unprofessional conduct." What will be considered "unprofessional"? Who will decide? Will the conduct have to be egregious? Will the violations be spelled out? Is social media going to render us on the clock all the time?

I am troubled at the reactionary clamping-down of social media in the healthcare sphere. I support some of it, because clearly some people need a reminder that we should not be identifying patients online, and they keep doing it, so there apparently needs to be a framework in place to stamp that out. I just hope hospitals think it through before getting too draconian about it. First, although we work for someone, we still have freedom of speech, and that's worth protecting. Second, social media can be extremely helpful and productive for healthcare professionals, and stamping it out is NOT helpful or productive (I also would argue that this will just drive bloggers into the anonymous underground, where HIPAA will not be scrupulously observed). Third, allowing co-workers to communicate on Facebook promotes team unity and a better at-work environment; stilting that interaction by forbidding anything that could possibly be construed as nonprofessional is probably nonproductive.

I suppose we'll see. I haven't yet worked anywhere that had a social media policy, and I've always thought they should have, so that there is a clear expectation. It'll be interesting to see how far they go.