Nurses & Social Media Usage Pitfalls

by Peggy Sellers Benson, RN, MSHA, MSN, NE-BC
Executive Officer, Alabama Board of Nursing

Recently, I have been asked to discuss the issues the Alabama Board of Nursing sees related to social media usage. Social media complaints against nurses are on the rise, reflecting the increasing accessibility of social media to the public.

Social media can include all forms of electronic media, online communities, and personal messages used as a conduit to share information. These media are a fact of life in our modern world, but that fact does not supersede a nurse’s fundamental duties as a professional.

I cannot stress enough that, as a nurse, you have a responsibility to respect and protect each patient’s privacy and dignity. You are the gatekeepers to their most private moments, moments which should never be shared for personal gain, no matter what that gain may be. It is prudent and wise for every nurse to review employer facility policies related to social media.

The complaints we receive span a wide range of social media postings that may have detrimental effects on patients and their families. Following are a few examples of the complaints which recently have resulted in discipline by the ABN:

  • Blogs posted on Facebook by a travel nurse, related to patient care assignments, which list patients’ diagnoses and locations of assignments, and included disparaging remarks related to social, educational, economic, ethnic, and mental status of these patients.
  • Video blogs (Instagram) related to patient care assignments from the ICU unit, describing patients by surgical procedure, nursing care provided, and staffing issues required, and including disparaging remarks about the patients themselves.
  • Patient pictures posted to FB and Snapchat, without consent, to include patients who were unconscious, on ventilator, in bed, in corridors, and with prosthetic device. This nurse even imitated use of the patient’s prosthesis.
  • Pictures with inappropriate objects over genital areas, in home care settings.
  • Patient diagnosis shared through prayer requests.
  • Patient diagnosis shared in retaliation against the patient.
  • Personal gripes of patient care assignments, in which employer, patient location, and diagnosis are shared.

In most Alabama communities, it is often easy to identify the individuals about whom the nurse is talking. The nurse must understand that he or she is doing more than just venting about work; these actions have the potential to devastate patients and their families, as well as the nurse’s career.

Often, social media tend to make us feel like we are talking only to our close friends, but the rapid sharing capabilities built into most social media platforms expand your audience in an instant. Many of the complaints the Board receives come not just from friends and coworkers, but also from random social media users who read posts or see pictures posted by nurses they personally do not know.

Nursing practice is regulated by state law, which delegates enforcement power to the ABN. The ABN establishes licensing criteria and the licensing process, defines and enforces scope and standards of practice, investigates complaints, and imposes discipline. The ABN has broad authority to regulate the nursing profession, to protect the public, and to maintain the integrity of the profession. Though nursing laws differ from state to state, common forms of social media misuse and abuse generally fall under more general grounds for discipline. These grounds include general laws governing unethical conduct that discloses confidential patient information, violates standards of practice, or is “likely to deceive, defraud, or harm the public, or [demonstrates] a willful or careless disregard for the health, welfare, or safety of a patient.” The Board takes its responsibilities very seriously and will continue to take action against nurses who offend in this manner.

In closing, I ask you to please consider what you post carefully and to ask yourself whether you really are doing the right thing. Would you want it posted about yourself, a family member, or a loved one? Would you want it in the front-page news or on CNN? Be cautious and consider carefully, before you post anything related to patients. Nurses have consistently been rated as America’s most trusted profession. Appreciate the public for your profession and return it, in everything you do as a nurse.