By Jennifer Larson, contributor
April 15, 2011 - Thinking of posting that picture of yourself and your co-workers mugging for the camera on Facebook? Tempted to vent just a little bit about a difficult patient on Twitter?
Not so fast.
As social media platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and others become increasingly popular, nurses need to step back and take a hard look at why and how they’re using them. There are numerous pitfalls that could jeopardize their careers if they aren’t careful about what they’re doing.
For example, four students in Kansas City were recently expelled from nursing school for posting photos of themselves with a placenta on Facebook. And last summer, five nurses in Oceanside, Calif., were fired for discussing patient cases on Facebook. Those are just a couple of examples.
Pamela Ressler, BSN, RN, who oversees social media pages for a major nursing school and her own business, says that social media, like any tool, has to be used correctly.
“There are incredible benefits of social media in the nursing profession,” said Pamela Ressler, BSN, RN, who administers and moderates the Twitter and Facebook pages for the University of Massachusetts (Boston) College of Nursing and Health Sciences. “But just like any tool, you’ve got to learn how to use it correctly.”
Many health care leaders are calling for an increase in awareness about the appropriate use of social media by health care professionals. And many hospitals are beginning to issue guidelines—and in some cases, stringent policies—in an effort to shape or limit their employees’ use of social networking sites.
In addition, certain professional organizations are beginning to issue guidelines for social media use to help health care professionals learn what’s appropriate to post online and what could leave room for a dismissal or even a lawsuit.
The American Nurses Association (ANA) does not have a social media policy, although one is in the works, said Betty Whitaker, director of membership and marketing. The ANA’s Congress on Nursing Practice and Economics will release a set of guidelines for public comment within the next few months, and then the board of directors will vote on a final version.
The American Medical Association does have a policy, which was officially adopted in November 2010. The AMA policy notes that social media outlets can benefit physicians when used appropriately. However, the growing popularity of social media outlets does pose new challenges, and physicians must take care to maintain the appropriate physician–patient boundaries.
To that end, the AMA policy recommends that physicians use privacy settings to safeguard as much information as possible. But because privacy settings can only go so far, physicians should be cautious when posting anything online.
Nurses should probably take similar steps, experts say. That means that nurses should educate themselves about the proper way to use social networking sites and how to avoid the pitfalls afforded by technology.
Here is a look at some of the dos and don’ts for social media use in the nursing profession:
DO make a distinction between your personal life and your professional life online.
The AMA guidelines state, “To maintain appropriate professional boundaries physicians should consider separating personal and professional content online.”
Ressler recommends that nurses also consider setting up both personal and professional accounts for platforms like Facebook and Twitter if they are going to use them for both purposes.
“You really need to have two separate (online) personas for yourself. I follow that rule myself,” said Ressler, noting that she even set up different Twitter accounts for her university position and for her own consulting company, Stress Resources.
DO use social media for educational and professional purposes.
Amanda McGauley, RN, believes that social media outlets are a great tool for nurses who want to learn more and to share their knowledge with others.
McGauley, who works as a clinical supervisor for a home health agency in Michigan, uses LinkedIn for professional purposes. And while she often uses Facebook and Twitter for fun, she’s discovered professional benefits there, too. She follows some health care providers and organizations on Twitter, and she often links articles and information that interests her to her Facebook page.
“As a nurse, it is part of the requirement to educate, so if I see something that deeply interests me, I typically pass it along to others I know,” she said.
DO be mindful of HIPAA.
Even if you’re posting professionally, be mindful of privacy regulations and keep the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) guidelines in mind.
“You have to be very careful about any kind of identifiers,” Ressler cautioned. “So you would never use names. You would never identify photographs.”
She added, “Photographs tend to be a real issue because people have their smartphones with them and they tend to click a photo and post them. And people don’t think twice about that. They need to think twice.”
DO set your privacy settings as high as possible.
This is very important for any personal social media accounts that a nurse might have. Take advantage of the ability to adjust the privacy settings for your personal accounts; don’t just go with the standard settings.
Facebook, for example, lets users customize their privacy settings so that they can limit what others can view on their page. Twitter also allows users to block people from seeing their tweets unless they’ve been approved by the user.
DON’T be lulled by false security.
Even privacy and security settings can only go so far.
“Once you post something on the Internet, it’s there forever,” Whitaker said.
So if you’re about to post something on a social networking site that you would never want to come back to haunt you, just press “delete.”
DON’T discuss your patients or your colleagues.
Again, nurses should steer clear of anything that might violate a patient’s privacy rights. But it’s also a good idea to avoid discussing your co-workers and your boss; they might stumble across what you wrote and be offended.
“I know I don’t do it, but you do, on occasion, read or hear someone who has,” McGauley said. “If a person engages in that type of behavior, they have effectively committed career suicide.”
© 2011. AMN Healthcare, Inc. All Rights Reserved.