Avoiding legal woes when marketing a practice online
■ A column examining the ins and outs of contract issues
Going online can be an inexpensive and effective form of marketing for any physician practice. But if it isn't done right, the Internet can end up being a legal minefield.
While the Web and social media can be beneficial, it is important for physicians to address the proper ways for a practice's doctors and staff to use social media inside and outside the workplace -- even for conduct outside the practice's work or Web space.
Your Web presence is treated as advertising under the law, just as if you bought space in a newspaper or telephone book. So the legal and ethical rules of advertising for physicians apply. For example, your website should not contain patient or individual testimonials. The safest way is to concentrate on the facts of your practice: who you are, your level of experience, the services you provide and your practice's location.
The site can tell potential patients why they should select your practice, as long as the statements are not legally false, deceptive or misleading, as judged by authorities such as your state's medical board. The American Medical Association Code of Medical Ethics says, "Generalized statements of satisfaction with a physician's services may be made if they are representative of the experience of that physician's patients."
Despite some risks, a website can be an excellent and relatively inexpensive way to brand your practice. So can social media -- Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other sites that connect directly with patients.
While engaging in social media, physicians also should be aware of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act's privacy provisions. Even an inadvertent disclosure of a patient's health information through social media can be a problem. For example, a hospital employee was forced to resign over a message she posted on Twitter that contained health information about a patient.
Even if you're not using social media, others may be using it to talk about you. Social media also are used by patients to express views about a physician. Some of my physician clients are concerned that patient blogs mentioning them are among the first few listings on search engines. Other physicians worry about false or misleading information being spread quickly through social media.
Legally speaking, there's not much a physician can do about this other than to monitor the conversation and respond professionally without attacking anyone personally or divulging patient information.
It is important that practices establish a social media policy for a practice's physicians and staff members. Your policy should outline what is acceptable use (if any) of personal social media during business hours. The following three W's should be outlined.
- Who is permitted to post or tweet material to social media dedicated to the practice? Is someone designated as the practice's poster or tweeter?
- What can be posted? The policy should address appropriate responses when people post material on the practice's site. For example, someone might post a medical question on the practice's Facebook page. From a liability perspective, you should not give medical advice through social media. A good response would be: "Thank you for your inquiry. Please call our office, and we will be happy to discuss this with you."
- Where will the practice post? The policy should say which social media sites the practice uses and maintains.
The policy should tell employees of the risks associated with disclosing patient and other practice information on social media networks and ways to avoid unlawful disclosures.
One way to do so is to require that all material posted on behalf of the practice be approved by a committee rather than a single person. This will help avoid HIPAA violations and inappropriate disclosures. Further, the policy should explain the consequences of noncompliance by your employees and emphasize personal responsibility and good judgment.