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Social Media Pitfalls in Healthcare

Health care practitioners are held to the highest standards of excellence, trusted by the community to provide quality treatment and care to patients. With the increasing popularity of social media, health care professionals have unsurprisingly become intertwined in the online community. The benefits are numerous: social media platforms are far-reaching and accessible, and they can help both the general population and the practitioners themselves.

A 2017 study reported that nearly 90% of surveyed health care workers use social media.1 Practitioners can disseminate general knowledge and awareness to wide audiences through tweets, blogs, and videos.2,3 There are also online communities exclusive to medical professionals, such as Sermo, Doximity, and DocMatter, that are designed for professional networking, clinical discussions, and crowdsourcing to identify best practices for patient cases.2,4

Despite these benefits, there are also challenges that practitioners face. Most notable are breaches of patient confidentiality. In 2016, a complaint was filed after Elite Dental Associates  published details about patients and their health conditions and treatment plans on Yelp,5 and in 2018, a nurse was fired from Texas Children’s Hospital after posting about an admitted patient with measles.6 These are examples of violations to patient privacy, which is protected under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA).7 Noncompliance can
result in legal action, monetary penalties, or even criminal charges.7 Beyond these concrete ramifications, there may also be unquantifiable consequences, such as tarnished reputations.

As such, practicing professionalism in all aspects of a health care career is vital. Medical professionals should also maintain clear patient-provider relationships, which can be blurred by interactions on social media.3 Headlines such as, “Medical students’ cadaver photos gets scrutiny after images show up online” and “Nursing students kicked out for placenta photos” are reminders that an online presence should be held to the same high standards of professionalism as in the workplace.8-10 The public views doctors as credible providers of medical information, particularly during the current pandemic. However, in a YouTube video from April 2020, two doctors downplayed the threat of COVID-19 and urged the easing of social distancing measures.11 Other medical professionals and organizations denounced their claims, and YouTube has since removed the video, but not before it attracted even more attention after Elon Musk tweeted about it.11

Concerns of social media misuse are valid, especially because of the wide reach of the Web and its swift ability to inflate seemingly innocuous comments into viral news.12 Nevertheless, the world is firmly on a trajectory of increasing social media use, so we must adapt to this evolving online landscape. A study by Surani et al. (2017) found that 40.8% of health care workers surveyed were unaware of the social media policies at their workplace,1 and another survey of pharmacy students found that there was a lack of understanding with respect to online professionalism.13 Both are sources of concern. They can be addressed through recommendations for social media policies as they intersect with the health care field and employee education for online professionalism.2,14

Future studies evaluating social media habits of healthcare professionals can be useful in understanding this issue and to develop appropriate interventions. As we move to establishing improved practices, it can be encouraging to remember the positive impacts of social media integration with health care, making education, care delivery, and networking more accessible.2


  1. Surani, Z., Hirani, R., Elias, A., Quisenberry, L, Varon, J., Surani, S., & Surami, S. (2017). Social media usage among health care providers. BMC Research Notes, 10(654).
  2. Ventola C. L. (2014). Social media and health care professionals: benefits, risks, and best practices. P & T : a peer-reviewed journal for formulary management, 39(7), 491–520.
  3. Chretian, K. C. & Kind, T. (2013). Social Media and Clinical Care: Ethical, Professional, and Social Implications. Circulation, 127(13), 1413-1421.
  4. Househ, M.S. (2013). The Use of Social Media in Healthcare: Organizational, Clinical, and Patient Perspectives. Studies in health technology and informatics, 183, 244-8. DOI:10.3233/978-1-61499-203-5-244
  5. HIPAA Journal. (2019, October 3). Dental Practice Fined $10,000 for PHI Disclosures on Yelp. HIPAA Journal.
  6. Fox, M. (2018, August 30). Texas Children’s Hospital nurse fired after post about measles patient. NBC News. ed-after-post-about-measles-n905146
  7. Office for Civil Rights. (n.d.) Summary of the HIPAA Privacy Rule. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
  8. George, D. R., Rovniak, L. S., & Kraschnewski, J. L. (2013). Dangers and opportunities for social media in medicine. Clinical obstetrics and gynecology, 56(3), 453–462.
  9. Heyboer, K. (2010, March 26). Medical students’ cadaver photos gets scrutiny after images show up online.
  10. Nursing Students Kicked Out for Placenta Photos. (2011, January 3). CBS News. Retrieved June 19, 2020, from
  11. 11. Dubious Coronavirus Claims By Central Valley Doctors Condemned By Health Experts. (2020, April 29). CBS SF Bay Area. Retrieved June 19, 2020, from sihi-coronavirus-covid-19-claimed-condemned/
  12. 12. HIPAA Violation: Employee Fired Over Social Media Post. (2017, May 8). Med-Net Compliance. Retrieved June 19, 2020, from
  13. Cain, J., Scott, D. R., & Akers, P. (2009). Pharmacy students’ Facebook activity and opinions regarding accountability and e-professionalism. American journal of pharmaceutical education, 73(6), 104.
  14. Cain, J. (2011). Social media in health care: The case for organizational policy and employee education. American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy, 68(11), 1036-1040.