Update employee policies to include guidelines for social networking

A practical look at information technology issues and usage

By Pamela Lewis Dolancovered health information technology issues and social media topics affecting physicians. Connect with the columnist: @Plewisdolan  —  Posted July 27, 2009.

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Whether on their own time or yours, staff members have likely caught the social networking bug. Their presence on sites like Facebook and Twitter could put your practice in a dangerous position. Or it could be an outlet used to your practice's advantage.

"You do have to understand it's out there and your employees are likely using it," said attorney Rex Stephens, a partner with the Orlando, Fla.-based law firm Baker Hostetler.

Whether your mission is to prevent employees from engaging in inappropriate activity or to use social media as part of a wider marketing strategy, the most important thing is to make your intentions and expectations clear.

Linda Pophal, owner and CEO of Strategic Communications, a Chippewa Falls, Wis.-based marketing firm, said strategies for dealing with social networking are no different from long-standing policies on what information can be shared through any public forum. For example, practices have to make clear to employees that they should not send a letter containing inappropriate content to the local newspaper editor. The same basic rules apply to social media, and office policies should be updated to reflect that, she said.

Stephens said social media policies bleed into other issues as well, including personal use of practice-owned computers and intellectual property protections. Rules covering these aspects also should be updated to reference social networking.

It's probably a good idea to send notices to everyone on staff explaining the rule revisions, he said. How policies are enforced likely will reflect the established practice culture.

While some employers strictly prohibit personal use of all office phones, cell phones and e-mail, many have found it's not practical to enforce an all-out ban. But if an employee's work performance suffers, the employer should have rules to refer to when addressing the issue.

A broad guideline stating that only reasonable use of office or personal equipment will be tolerated for nonwork reasons can be enforced to whatever degree necessary. The introduction of social media shouldn't change what already has been working for a practice, experts say.

The hardest problem to address is what employees do online when they are away from the office. Policies can be crafted to ensure a separation between work and personal activities.

The Mayo Clinic, for example, requires employees to write in the first person and use personal e-mail addresses on networking sites so they don't give the perception of representing their employer.

Ideally, employees also will have a disclaimer on any personal sites saying the views represented are their own and not their employer's. But, Stephens said, this is difficult to enforce within the posting limitations of Twitter.

Pophal said a practice needs to make clear what is appropriate and what is not, and have someone in charge of monitoring compliance. She said one easy way to monitor activity is by setting up Google alerts so you receive an e-mail every time there is an online mention of you, your practice or any other names or topics you designate.

Pophal said since many employees might be new to social media and not yet know what's appropriate, practices might consider professional development seminars or workshops. Practices could also host social media events and encourage employees to participate.

Some facilities have found that engaging employees in social networking has benefits and that they can serve as online ambassadors.

Peter Pitts, president and co-founder of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest and partner and director of global health care for the public relations firm Porter Novelli, takes it one step further. He said every practice employee who has face-to-face interactions with patients should be involved in a social media strategy. Since the only legal issues that should come into play are patient privacy laws, he said the office should focus on best practices that divide how each employee can use the tool to accomplish a different task.

Pitts said that while there is room for social media to be used for marketing, the initial focus should be on communication with existing patients. The first thing to remember is that it is social, meaning two-way communication.

If practices want to engage their patients with more robust communication, "how can you rationalize not doing it?" he asked.

Pamela Lewis Dolan covered health information technology issues and social media topics affecting physicians. Connect with the columnist: @Plewisdolan  — 

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