The news that Facebook is confronting another round of privacy issues is a reminder to healthcare chief information officers that they should implement policies and guidelines for staffers who use social networking sites.
However, with health CIOs thinking about electronic medical record implementations, preparations for meeting the requirements of meaningful use of health IT, virtualization projects, HIPAA regulations, and the explosion of patient data and how to store it securely, social networking guidelines may not be getting the attention it deserves.
"It's low on their list," explained Thomas Handler, a Gartner analyst covering clinical applications in healthcare. Handler recently spoke with hospital CIOs, many of whom said they had a simple remedy for the problem.
"Most hospital CIOs seemed to just ban social media sites like Facebook from the hospital websites. That seemed to be the tact that most of them were taking, which is to tell the staff that they can't go to Facebook while on our network," Handler said.
If only life were that simple. It isn't. As it turns out, health organizations participate in social networking in many forms. Social networking sites help healthcare professionals and patients exchange information, assists physicians facilitate research and encourage medical specialists to share information and experiences regarding patient care. Additionally, communities of patients with similar conditions or concerns engage these sites as do hospital staff that share information on fundraising drives.
Many CIOs may think banning social networking sites is the correct, easy and safe way out, but Handler says it's a poor excuse for a remedy and only breeds bad behavior that could lead to unwanted consequences.
"If the reason you ban the site is because you don't want the nurses or the respiratory therapists or physicians in the emergency department wasting time on Facebook during work hours that's an easy and rational statement," Handler explains. "Yet, if there's a group of people using it appropriately for collaborative purposes to lock them out will breed difficulty and will drive them to collaborate on their own time perhaps with less safeguards in place," Handler said.
Furthermore, in an environment where social networking use is becoming more pervasive, health delivery organizations need to be engaging social networking sites to see what is being said about them, making sure the information is accurate and if it's not, taking action to counter the information.
To find a happy medium, Handler said CIOs in healthcare organizations should serve as a trusted advisor for important social-networking trends, opportunities and risks.
According to Handler, an important role of the CIO is to educate the staff about the risks of using these sites, especially in an age where personal health information is increasingly being displayed in a digital format.
"In general, the danger is more about the naive clinician not understanding the potential consequences specifically about the accidental release of personal health information," Handler said.
The CIO should ensure that overall responsibility is assumed by the IT governance body and that the right executives and departments, including the chief medical officer, the chief nursing officer as well as the heads of marketing and the human resources department find a way to create the appropriate policies and guidelines for engaging social networking sites.
In a recently published Gartner report entitled: The top 9 Actions for the Healthcare Delivery Organization CIO, 2010, Handler provides three recommendations that health CIOs should consider. These are:
--Create and enforce policies regarding the use of social-network sites.
--Ensure that someone in the health delivery organization is responsible for scanning social-network sites for positive and negative publicity.
--Where policy promotes the use of social networking, provide education for staff and patients about appropriate use.