Going Social: Weighing the Risks and Benefits

Consultant Keith Olenik, MA, RHIA, CHP, with The Olenik Consulting Group, in Chicago, IL, said that when he hears that organizations are considering getting into social media, his legal antennae go up. “Typically, I say, ‘Just say no.’” But, he and his co-presenter Peter Enko, JD, a partner and member of the healthcare and privacy and data security practice groups with Husch Blackwell LLP in Kansas City, agreed in their session Tuesday that while social media carries risks for providers and organizations, it also offers value and benefits to patients that can’t be ignored. “Patients need to have new ways to view information,” Enko said, which calls for an awareness on the part of providers of what is appropriate and useful.

Health 2.0 is a Conversation

Patients are using social media, including blogs, to get practical healthcare information, as well as share with and learn from others going through the same illnesses they are. Olenik also pointed out how healthcare groups are employing social media to get messages out on everything from disease management to maintaining health and wellness to clinical trial recruitment. According to Olenik, this is Health 2.0—the inter-exchange of health information made possible by these technologies. We don’t just put information out to patients; now we talk to each other.

Hidden Risks

Enko warned that some of the risks associated with providers engaging with social media include the relationship that could develop, even in a limited way, online. Providers may open themselves up to accusations of unauthorized practice, malpractice, or patient abandonment. Enko cited several “hidden privacy and security risks.” For example, providing advice online to a particular patient could be seen as a potential privacy breech, even though the patient initiated the communication.

Cover Yourself

The risks, however, Enko said, can be mitigated by:

  • Obtaining patient authorization when communicating via social media
  • Using secure servers and encryption
  • Avoiding “friending” patients
  • Posting disclaimers on blogs indicating that the information is not meant to be advice


Also, prepare for privacy and security breeches. “It’s unavoidable,” Enko said. From an HR perspective, have policy and procedures in place, and know what your organization’s response will be, before it happens.

The Future

Social media is not going away. Before participating, Olenik advised that organizations evaluate whether or not they should join in. Go through a formal process of evaluating the risks and benefits. Ask if it is cost effective to engage in social media from a time and resources standpoint. “This is really just another form of compliance,” Olenik said. Someone in the organization must take responsibility for the organization’s social media strategy and specific goals. “Some of you students in the audience,” he suggested, “may want to go into this area of work.”


**Follow the news and get insights from AHIMA’s 84th annual Convention and Exhibit being held October 1-3 in Chicago, IL. New articles covering the event will be posted daily. Look for special e-Alert announcements October 1-3 linking you to a full online edition of AHIMA Today, the on-site convention newspaper.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to Keith Olenik as an attorney. He is not an attorney; he is a consultant and runs the Olenik Consulting Group. We regret the error. This article also appeared in the October 3, 2012, print and digital version of AHIMA Today.

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