Social Media in the Healthcare Sector

Social media are a significant part of people’s everyday lives, and it is natural that hospitals also establish their online presence to promote their services and market them to larger audiences. According to the recent statistics provided by Smith (2017), in the United States alone, more than 90% of top-ranking hospitals rely on the active use of social media platforms such as Facebook. Such data indicate a high demand among healthcare providers for modern ways of communication with their clients. Moreover, hospitals’ extensive utilization of social media means also proves the idea that healthcare institutions must maintain online communication channels to be competitive in the current environment. At the same time, healthcare providers’ use of social media is also linked with various concerns, including those of privacy that have to be controlled and managed by hospitals. In other words, to ensure proper management of social media, healthcare providers need to develop proper guidelines and rely on clear policies applicable to all personnel members.

Social Media Use Cases in Healthcare

Before exploring the policies introduced by hospitals in the United States and other countries, it is crucial to analyze the literature on the social media use cases in healthcare. Social media present many opportunities to healthcare providers since they are versatile and therefore can be used for different purposes. The use of social media as an organizational tool enables healthcare stakeholders to enhance recruitment practices, maximize the efficiency of operations, and establish better feedback channels (Ennis-O-Connor & Mannion, 2019). Social media help to narrow the communication gap between patients and hospitals and thus improve transparency since the public receives a chance to monitor the conduct of healthcare organizations. Social media are also convenient for informing clients about the latest policies and changes and communicating the values and vision of the healthcare organization.

As mentioned above, research demonstrates that social media perform several vital roles in healthcare, and one of them is oriented towards interactions with patients. For instance, social media platforms are employed by hospitals in order to provide health resources, deliver health information to clients, and encourage audiences to participate in certain events. Hospitals also use social media channels to establish communication with the clients and provide peer-support group assistance (Ashton et al., 2017). There is also evidence that certain hospitals use social media as a platform where they can motivate their patients to engage in therapeutic activities or share their progress. For instance, patients of certain healthcare organizations are asked to post photos of their healthy meals and physical activities to help doctors to monitor their development (Fernandez-Luque et al., 2017). Thus, it is possible to say that social media play a significant role in the modern healthcare system and provide hospitals with tools to promote their services and ensure easy communication with clients.

Another important use case for social media is the networking among healthcare professionals who utilize online platforms as places where they can communicate and share their expertise. Although there are social media websites which are intended specifically for healthcare workers, many professionals prefer to use the most popular ones, such as Facebook. By using social media, specialists can enter online communities, engage in discussions regarding patient issues with colleagues, and listen to experts. The social-networking platforms also enable professionals to find partners to explore different topics of interest, which may concern various subjects, including ethics and career strategies (Kouri et al., 2017). Social media also removes the necessity for doctors to travel to share their insights and knowledge with their colleagues in other countries. As a result, professionals working in countries with less-advanced healthcare systems can contact those specialists from western nations and ask for advice. Essentially, social media provide professionals working in the sphere of healthcare with opportunities for professional networking and exchanging of medical information in an efficient way without any obstacles.

Another common way healthcare industry stakeholders employ social media is the facilitation and promotion of education. Essentially, the communication capabilities which social media offers can be utilized successfully to enhance the quality of clinical education. Since the new generation of healthcare professionals are extensively using social media platforms, such platforms can be adapted to serve educational purposes. Some universities provide their solutions based on social media platforms, including the provision of access to academic libraries and the creation of virtual classrooms (Zakkar et al., 2022). Healthcare students use social media to contact their professors and instructors about different points of interest related to their training. Students also can hold discussions with one another on social media, for example, in order to work together on joint projects and initiatives. The social media pages of some healthcare organizations also often contain valuable information such as links to new studies which both students and professionals can explore to educate themselves on different topics. Therefore, social media platforms also play a significant role in the advancement of education among healthcare professionals.

Finally, in the current circumstances, when the majority of people have access to the Internet, social media are an important tool for marketing purposes. As a result, in order to be competitive in the existing market, healthcare organizations such as hospitals, societies, pharmaceutical companies, and even advocacy groups have a social media presence. Although communication with the clients is one of the main purposes, social media are also used to increase organizational visibility (Ennis-O-Connor & Mannion, 2019). Many of the social media platforms, including Facebook, provides tools for promotion which hospitals and other organizations use. For instance, clinics can conduct marketing campaigns on social media to attract new clients and make a large audience of people aware of their services. Social media also help healthcare providers to familiarize their online audiences with the range of services they offer. For example, by using social media, hospitals can share news about their unique state-of-the-art equipment, which can become a major selling point for many patients (Elhajjar & Ouaida, 2021). Thus, social media are an integral part of modern healthcare organizations’ marketing strategies which they successfully utilize.

At the same time, despite the benefits of social media for healthcare professionals and organizations, there are certain problems. One of the main risks which specialists and hospitals face when using social media is the potential negative impact on their professional image. Frequently, doctors mention on their social media that they work at a certain healthcare organization. As a result, people who visit the doctor’s social media do not see a difference between the private and professional identity of the specialist. Thus, when the doctor engages in unethical behavior online, for instance, by using profanity, their actions entail damage to the professional image of the organization they work at. At the same time, hospitals also can engage in similar activities, for example, by posting photos of intoxicated people as part of their marketing campaign, which can undermine their public image (Elhajjar & Ouaida, 2021). The is also a possibility of hospitals talking to their clients online in an unethical manner and making negative comments about patients’ health or appearance. All of such situations can potentially lead to significant damage to the reputation of professionals and organizations.

Another topical issue which is related to the use of social media by healthcare specialists and organizations is patient privacy and consent. When discussing certain medical problems and the possible treatment options with colleagues on social media may expose the personal information of their clients. Healthcare specialists often share medical documentation, such as X-ray pictures of their patients, with colleagues (Elhajjar & Ouaida, 2021). Yet, such documentation can have details disclosing the identity of the patient, which can violate their privacy. For example, there can be names or home addresses of the patient, therefore, it is crucial for doctors to receive the consent of their clients first. At the same time, hospitals also can expose the identities of their clients by posting clinical vignettes on their social media pages. Thus, the privacy of patients must be one of the main concerns of every healthcare organization and professional who utilizes social media for different purposes, from communication and networking to marketing.

Social media use entails the processing of large arrays of information which also can be problematic. Hospitals and professionals must be careful when sharing information which they find online with their patients on social media. Due to the fact that there are currently many sources containing medical advice and other types of information, it is essential that healthcare providers refer only to credible ones (Kouri et al., 2017). For instance, when sending a link to a client to a website containing information about the patient’s condition, doctors must ensure that such a resource does not promote any unconventional treatments or false data. There is also a problem with copyrighted information such as videos and images, which hospitals may share without providing credit to the original creator or owner. In such cases, legal actions may ensure costing hospitals considerable sums of money, therefore, it is crucial that healthcare organizations always ensure that they do not engage in copyright infringement before posting content.

Social Media Policies of Hospitals

Professionalism is one of the main qualities of every person working in the sphere of healthcare and interacting with patients. At the same time, when using social media, some specialists may not recognize their obligation to adhere to professionalism online. Nevertheless, as research shows, the hospitals enforce special policies requiring their employees to follow the principles of professionalism and integrity both when having in-person interactions with patients and when using social media (Kouri et al., 2017). The professionalism which healthcare specialists must demonstrate online is largely no different from the standard one. Essentially, specialists must embrace the existing norms of confidentiality and communication as the foundation for their online professionalism. In other words, hospitals do not change the ethical standards for their staff members in the situation of online communication through social media platforms. Nevertheless, social media also entail new circumstances where the principle of professionalism must be upheld strongly. For instance, social media crate challenges in terms of privacy, confidentiality, and professional conduct since online communication is more informal and based on open sharing.

Thus, hospitals and healthcare specialists require clear policies which will guide their actions since, in the context of online communication, the boundaries of interactions are not as clear. Healthcare providers, when using social media, may not be able to locate the line between the personal and professional content and thus may not have the capacity to determine the appropriate professional behavior. As a result, one of the goals when designing policies of the majority of hospitals is to ensure that the private use of social media by employees does not lead to lapses in their professionalism (Logghe et al., 2018). Such lapses ultimately constitute inappropriate behavior which can become exposed to a wider audience on social media. Such conduct can erode the public trust and confidence, as well as the reputation of the medical profession and the organization they work at.

Thus, hospitals offer different policies where they stipulate the prohibited behavior on social media for their employees. For instance, unprofessional conduct which is against the policies of the majority of hospitals is the use of discriminatory language and profanity in communication or as part of the content shared by the specialists. The policies also prohibit sexually suggestive images as well as those containing intoxicated people (Benetoli et al., 2018). Hospitals do not let their employees make negative comments concerning patients or the employer. Most notably, healthcare professionals must be aware that such rules are applicable both to their professional and personal social media accounts. Despite the fact that healthcare workers are entitled to their private life, posting content which goes against the ethical policies of their employer on social media can entail considerable harm for every party involved.

As mentioned above, hospitals tend to establish and adhere to specific social media policies that are regulated by the organization. Many researchers state that social media policies are as important as all other types, including those concerning discrimination and vacation (Smith, 2017). At the same time, studies also show that due to the fact the sphere of social media is prone to continuous change, it becomes difficult for hospitals to create guidelines for every scenario. The majority of policies that hospitals use are based on professional standards, including those maintained in social media use. Essentially, all hospitals are obligated to follow such standards and formulate their social media policies. According to research, the American Medical Association became the first healthcare organization that adopted social media policies (Soubra et al., 2022). For instance, the Association conducts anti-vaccination campaigns on social media, and therefore it was essential for it to ensure certain rules of online behavior (Japsen, 2019). The introduction of social media policies showed that social media entailed new legal and ethical challenges for healthcare providers.

At the same time, the policies did not contain any novel recommendations or guidelines and rather utilized the established standards by applying them to social media. For instance, the policies stipulated that when interacting with patients online, hospitals had to recognize appropriate boundaries that would reflect the standard ethical principles, as in any other context (Soubra et al., 2022). Thus, it can be noted that hospitals view social media activities as an extension of their ordinary operations, and therefore physicians and nurses must remain ethical online.

The American Medical Association was not the only organization working in the sphere of healthcare to introduce social media policies. For instance, the American Nurses Association, together with the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, published a document that stipulated social networking principles for nurses. Moreover, the American Society of Health System Pharmacists also has clear guidelines on the use of social media. All of the policies mentioned earlier are rather similar in their essence since they highlighted the significance of following the ethical and legal standards that already existed at that moment. One of the fundamental principles that are mentioned in the documents was the need to guarantee privacy and confidentiality to patients and protect their personal information from being exposed online (Garg & Shrigiriwar, 2021). In other words, the standards embraced by many hospitals in social media are consistent with the basic codes of ethics relevant for all healthcare organizations. In other words, many organizations do not develop any new legal or ethical considerations specific to social media and decide to rely on well-established norms and ethics.

The lack of innovative social media use policies also means that healthcare professionals, in many cases, must reconceptualize the existing ethical standards themselves. Essentially, specialists such as physical therapists, assistants, nurses, and even students should apply their respective codes of ethics to online communication in the way that they personally believe is appropriate. Many researchers, including Cain, proposed the need for hospitals to establish clear policies concerning social media use that would not be general but rather specific. The Mayo Clinic can be viewed as a healthcare provider that upholds exemplary policies in terms of social media in the industry. For instance, one of the primary standards of the Mayo Clinic is the prohibition to share proprietary information about the organization and confidential information about patients (Kotsenas et al., 2018). Moreover, the Mayo Clinic has clear rules for the use of social media, e-mail, and the Internet in general, including those concerning photography, video, and patient details. The example of the Mayo Clinic shows that certain healthcare providers, instead of relying on the general ethical guidelines, design clear policies that apply solely to social media and Internet use.

As mentioned above, social media entail challenges for healthcare providers in terms of dividing their personal and professional identities. While it is clear that the majority of healthcare professionals have separate personal and professional social media accounts, it is a solution which does not lead to the separation of their professional and personal identities (Ramage & Moorley, 2019). One of the reasons why the complete separation of identities is impossible is because social media activities exist in the public space. Thus, one of the policies of hospitals is the provision of information to employees that separate accounts do not guarantee privacy. As a result, hospitals require their employees to maintain professionalism irrespective of which account they currently use. The use of strict privacy settings also cannot provide specialists with a high degree of certainty that their posts will not be disseminated to a larger audience.

Another topical issue addressed by hospitals in their social media policies is leadership and the adherence of the employees to universal values. Essentially, organizational leaders must educate all of the workers on the common values espoused by the hospital and its mission. Therefore, every employee of the hospital should align their online activities with the values promoted by the organization they work at (Halevi et al., 2018). Otherwise, non-compliance will impose damage on the reputation of the organization and will lead to the termination of the contract with the employee. It is an obligation of the leadership to develop a unified voice which will represent the organization on social media and other online platforms. Additionally, there is a common policy which advises healthcare workers against the provision of medical consultations to nonpatients, as well as against requesting people to become a client of the hospital (Halevi et al., 2018). Such policies can ensure that the organization and its employees adhere to the principle of professionalism and ethical behavior.

It also needs to be mentioned that the social media policies of hospitals must always be devised in accordance with the existing legislation. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, established in 1996, is the law that regulates the utilization of online communication for healthcare providers. Specifically, HIPAA covers the areas of security, confidentiality, and transmissibility of patients’ personal health information (Garg & Shrigiriwar, 2021). Personal health information refers to the patient data that is individually identifiable and includes several key data points, including the name, face image, birth date, and other elements. Therefore, disclosing clients’ personal health information constitutes a violation of HIPAA. Essentially, if physicians or nurses expose personal health information, they can be fined for it. Thus, practically all hospitals in the United States mention the deidentification of patients’ personal health information as one of the key components of social media use (Garg & Shrigiriwar, 2021). For instance, hospitals have to remove personal health information from the image when publishing a photo online of a patient’s lungs.

Social Media Policies of Children’s Hospitals

While it is important to consider healthcare providers’ social media use policies in general, it is also interesting to analyze the implementation of such guidelines by niche organizations, including children’s hospitals. A literature analysis shows that the social media policies espoused by general hospitals are also applicable to those working specifically with children. In other words, there is no need for special considerations stipulated in healthcare providers’ documents on how social media should be used when sharing content related to children. For instance, the practice of deidentification is extensively utilized by the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. In addition, the organization uses images of radiographs of its child patients on social media after removing their personal data for the purpose of education (Shah & Kotsenas, 2017). Thus, the principles of privacy and confidentiality remain relevant for both adult and child hospitals when using social media.

The Core Social Media Guidelines

The literature review provides evidence on the basic principles of social media utilization by hospitals and other health organizations. Apart from upholding patients’ privacy, hospitals must educate themselves on the most recent legislation concerning protecting clients’ information. Another common policy of hospitals is recognizing their and their employees’ responsibility for what they share online, including on social media platforms. Furthermore, the staff of hospitals must practice digital professionalism and avoid sharing any data of their patients in their personal social media accounts. Finally, when conducting communication with patients online, healthcare providers must guarantee complete information safety to their clients. The policies mentioned above constitute the relevant guidelines for the majority of hospitals in the United States, including in organizations providing care to children.


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