Posting protected health information (PHI) on social media sites, including closed Facebook groups, violates HIPAA Rules. The sharing of PHI such as photos and video clips of patients through messaging applications such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Skype, is also a violation of HIPAA. The only occasions when this would be acceptable is if a patient gave prior authorization in writing. IN general however, nurses are not allowed to share pictures or videos of patients (and any other PHI) on social media platforms. The National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) has issued a helpful guide for nurses about the proper use of social media to help clarify federal privacy laws on the matter.
Recently, there have been many cases of nurses who have violated HIPAA on social media. Particularly egregious cases involved nurses taking photographs and videos of patients in embarrassing positions and have shared the degrading images and videos on social media with their friends.
ProPublica published a report regarding the extent of these unacceptable practices. When compiling the report, its investigators identified 35 separate cases of nurses who had shared degrading images and images of elder abuse in nursing homes on the social media platform Snapchat. This appears to be a growing problem. In the past two years there have been 22 cases discovered, compared to just 13 cases prior to that. Of course, those are just the cases that have been identified. There are likely to be many cases that have gone undiscovered since the photos/videos are often shared in closed groups. When cases are identified they result in the employee being terminated, and in some instances, criminal charges will be filed.
Cases of elder abuse in nursing homes and assisted living centers are nothing new, but it is a relatively new phenomenon for images and videos to be shared on social media channels. Fortunately, a digital trail is created which enables law enforcement to take action when these HIPAA violations are discovered.
One recent case occurred in January. A nursing assistant got fired as a result of the sharing of images and videos of abuse of a patient with Alzheimer’s disease on Snapchat. Criminal charges were also filed and if found guilty, the nurse could be imprisoned for up to three and a half years.