Ask a lawyer: Social media


Question:  A nurse working in primary care receives a “friend” request on her Facebook site from someone with a familiar-sounding name. The picture accompanying the request is of a lakeside sunset, so she cannot tell who sent the request. Because the name sounds familiar, she accepts the request. After going through the requestor’s profile, she realizes the “friend” is a patient. The next day, she receives a message from the patient commenting on photos the nurse had posted of her and her friends drinking margaritas on the beach in Mexico. What should she do?

Answer:  Professional practice standards regarding confidentiality, therapeutic boundaries and professional image are engaged when nurses use social media in connection with their professional activities. Many institutions and health authorities have policies regarding social media and patient privacy and the failure to abide by these governing standards and policies can lead to serious legal consequences.

Even where there is no clear policy prohibiting the practice, nurses should consider declining “friend” requests from current or former patients, as communicating with clients through social media sites may extend the scope of professional responsibility. The fact that information in electronic form is easily distributed, archived, and downloaded leaves little control over who sees the information posted on social media sites. In addition, accepting a “friend” request from a patient can adversely affect the nurse-patient therapeutic relationship. Nurses who allow patients to access their entire profile allow them to access information beyond what would normally be shared in a professional nurse-patient relationship.

With respect to the content posted on this nurse’s personal social media page, nurses are reminded that postings to social media sites are generally permanent records that cannot easily be deleted. There exists anecdotal evidence that an increasing number of employers check social networking profiles of current and prospective employees looking for information that could be interpreted as reflecting negatively on the organization or as misconduct or inappropriate behaviour on the part of employees.

If a patient does request you as a “friend” on a social networking site, a polite message responding that it is not your practice to establish online relationships with patients is appropriate. In this case, the nurse could simply send a similar message to the patient indicating that the “friend” request was accepted in error and “unfriend” the patient.

For more information, see our CNPS infoLAW on Social Media.

Published May 2017

 

THIS PUBLICATION IS FOR INFORMATION PURPOSES ONLY. NOTHING IN THIS PUBLICATION SHOULD BE CONSTRUED AS LEGAL ADVICE FROM ANY LAWYER, CONTRIBUTOR OR THE CNPS. READERS SHOULD CONSULT LEGAL COUNSEL FOR SPECIFIC ADVICE.