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January • 30 • 2024

Navigating Social Media in the Healthcare Sector


Marlene Icenhower, BSN, JD, CPHRM, Senior Risk Management Consultant



Social media in the healthcare sector has created new opportunities for community engagement, but risks include HIPAA violations and bad publicity.

For healthcare providers, social media presents pros and cons. On the one hand, it is a great way to engage with the community to provide useful tips and reminders. On the other hand, the very nature of social media means there can be risks. Navigating social media in the healthcare sector requires strong policies to help mitigate these exposures.

Most Healthcare Providers and Patients Use Social Media

Research from Griffis et al. shows that the vast majority of hospitals have a social media presence, particularly on Yelp, Foursquare, and Facebook, whereas research from Surani et al. found that 87.9% of healthcare providers use social media, with the average healthcare worker using social media for approximately one hour each day.

According to Business Insider, TikTok is building a thriving medical community as more healthcare providers turn to content creation. These medical content creators have a large audience because many people on social media engage with health information. CharityRx says 33% of Americans look for information on YouTube before consulting their doctors and 37% turn to online influencers for health advice.

How Healthcare Facilities Can Leverage Social Media

Pew Research Center says 72% of the adult U.S. population is using social media. This means 28% of the population is not, with the rate of non-usage being higher in certain demographics. For example, Pew Research Center data shows that individuals over age 65 as well as individuals without a college education are less likely to use social media. For this reason, healthcare providers cannot rely on social media to reach everyone.

Nevertheless, social media is an effective way of engaging with the majority of the community. Healthcare facilities can use social media to:

  • Raise awareness by announcing new services or recognizing staff.
  • Provide health tips about topics such as diet, exercise, and sleep hygiene.
  • Give timely information such as reminders for the seasonal flu vaccine.
  • Issue urgent health alerts or provider-specific information such as delayed service times or a change in hours.

Social Media Risk Scenarios

While social media can be a helpful tool, Healthcare leaders and those in charge of posting need to be mindful of the risks. Consider the following scenarios:

  • A patient complains on social media about the way he was treated. He says the healthcare provider he saw ignored his symptoms and that his condition became worse as a result. He also accuses the staff of racial discrimination. The post receives widespread attention and eventually gains media coverage.
  • A nurse posts an image of a celebrity who has received care at your facility. Although the nurse does not name the celebrity and the photo does not show her face, fans are able to identity the individual. The celebrity feels her privacy has been violated, breaking HIPAA rules.
  • A doctor writes a post about a controversial issue. A social media account with a large following reposts it, and it goes viral. People who disagree with the post begin contacting the hospital where the doctor works, some even making threats against the hospital.

Issues like these have created big challenges for medical providers. For example, NBC News says a Florida nurse was fired after she posted photos of a baby born with a birth defect on her personal social media account. In another social media-related incident, Business Insider reports an ER doctor was fired after posting an Instagram story that seemed to condone the Hamas attack on Israel. The post was shared by another account on X (formerly Twitter), accusing the doctor of celebrating the violence.

Actively Managing Your Social Media Accounts

Despite the risks, maintaining a social media presence can be worthwhile. Many people are looking for medical advice and information online—you can ensure they find accurate information. Social media is also a cost-effective way to interact with the community and increase support for your facility. Even if your facility eschews social media, many staff members have their own personal accounts, so you still need to educate your team about potential risks. Below are five best practices to keep in mind.

  1. Create Clear Social Media Policies for Staff. As more healthcare workers become content creators and social media influencers, organizations need clear policies on what they do and do not allow. Ensure all workers are aware of HIPAA requirements and understand that HIPAA violations may lead to termination.
  2. Monitor Social Media. Patients may post complaints about your facility or staff on social media. Complaints and criticisms may also come from other sources--posts on personal accounts that don’t align with the services you provide or the stances your healthcare providers take. Monitor platforms for mentions and check regularly for direct messages. Consider setting up Google Alerts for your facility’s name in case you are mentioned but not tagged.
  3. Respond to Grievances. According to the Code of Federal Regulations, hospitals must establish a process for the prompt resolution of patient grievances and let each patient know whom to contact to file a grievance. Since a negative post on social media may be considered a grievance, your facility has an obligation to respond. When doing so, it’s important to adhere to HIPAA requirements.
  4. Practice Compliance With HIPAA. Healthcare facilities and providers need to be cautious when posting on social media to avoid violating HIPAA. Never post anything about a patient, even if the patient initiated the communication. For example, if a patient complains about a recent visit, do not respond by providing excuses or explanations, as these details could inadvertently include protected health information. Instead, reply with a standard HIPAA-compliant response that tells the poster how to make a complaint—i.e., a phone number, email address, or physical address to use.
  5. Take Threats Seriously. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that incidents of workplace violence against healthcare workers have been increasing. Although some people may make threats they never intend to follow through with, it’s impossible to know which threats are real and which are not. Take all threats seriously.

Social media has become ingrained in every aspect of our daily lives—including in healthcare. Proactive social media risk management can help facilities avoid HIPAA violations and prevent patient complaints and bad press from spiraling.

Copyrighted. No legal or medical advice intended. This post includes general risk management guidelines. Such materials are for informational purposes only and may not reflect the most current legal or medical developments. These informational materials are not intended, and must not be taken, as legal or medical advice on any particular set of facts or circumstances. 


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