There’s no question social media has had a profound impact on our daily lives, changing not only the ways we communicate but also how we learn, work, and build relationships. But social media has done even more than this.

It has also transformed the practice of medicine and revolutionized the healthcare industry. Indeed, businesses in the healthcare sector must cultivate a robust social media presence if they are to survive and thrive in today’s increasingly competitive and crowded marketplace.

As critical as social media engagement is to the success of healthcare enterprises, however, there are risks leadership ignores at the company’s peril. This article examines the importance of social media risk management for businesses in the healthcare industry and describes approaches businesses can use to mitigate risks.

The Benefits of Social Media Marketing

Operating in the healthcare domain is, above all, a person-focused endeavor, but that does not change the fact healthcare businesses are still businesses. And that means profitability must be a priority if the enterprise is to endure for the long term.

To achieve the growth necessary for survival, healthcare enterprises must market their brand effectively, and there are few more potent marketing channels than social media. Indeed, social media offers healthcare organizations a rare opportunity to engage with existing and prospective patients on a largely unprecedented level.

From medical clinics to healthcare product and service providers, the use of social media gives leadership the ability to receive substantive patient and customer feedback, practically in real time. This enables businesses to pivot as needed in order to accommodate the ever-evolving needs and expectations of patients and their families.

Perhaps even more importantly, by maintaining a thriving social media presence, healthcare organizations can build a true sense of community with their target client base. This is critical for enterprises that seek both to raise brand awareness and cultivate a reputation for trustworthiness, integrity, and professional excellence.

Social Media and the Challenges of HIPAA

In the U.S., there are few statutes more important in shaping ethical and legal practice for healthcare enterprises than the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). HIPAA is designed to protect and preserve patients’ private health information.

This includes ensuring persons with authorized access to patients’ sensitive data use and disseminate that information according to rigorous ethical standards. Persons and organizations found to have violated HIPAA statutes are subject to often severe legal and regulatory penalties, from significant fines to loss of operating licenses to the imprisonment of responsible agents.

As vital as HIPAA regulations are in shaping business practices, however, their applicability to social media remains ambiguous because the laws predate the advent of social media. Nevertheless, there is legal precedent for the enforcement of HIPAA statutes on social media, including findings of criminal negligence for persons posting protected health information.

The challenge, of course, lies in determining what is and what is not protected health information. Because the standards for applying HIPAA to social media are still quite opaque, it is often best to err on the side of caution and avoid references to specific cases, even obliquely.

Medical Malpractice, Brand Reputation, and Social Media

Inadvertent HIPAA violations are not the only risk you must address if you want to capitalize on the tremendous power of social media for your healthcare organization. You must also recognize and guard against the possibility of medical malpractice through your business’s social media practices.

Remember anything posted on your company’s social media site is likely to be viewed as representative of your company. This means anything you post may be construed as medical advice, inadvertently causing harm to those who read the post and apply the information inappropriately.

For instance, if a site visitor is experiencing a gastrointestinal complaint and your company responds with tips for managing their distress, other readers may follow the recommendations. This may lead the reader to ignore GI-related symptoms of a heart attack or other serious health condition. The harm which may result to them as a consequence of following the advice in your company’s post may be adjudicated as medical malpractice, subjecting your business to legal liability.

Thus, ultimately, your business is responsible for anything posted on its websites and social media pages, as well as any inadvertent harm which may result from your content. And this can severely, even irreparably, damage your business’s reputation. This is why caution and care are critical when taking your healthcare business online, particularly when using social media for marketing and engagement.

Cybersecurity and Related Risk Mitigation

When it comes to leveraging the tremendous power of social media in your healthcare business, proactive risk mitigation is key.

It’s imperative, for instance, you prioritize cybersecurity across all your platforms, from your internal network to your websites to your social media. This will help prevent data loss, theft, and misuse. It will also help to avoid account hijacking, which can result in fraud and severe reputational damage.

Because your business’s social media platforms are so closely tied both to your audience’s well-being and to your company’s brand identity, hiring a social media manager is often key. A social media manager, particularly one with training and experience in the healthcare industry, is uniquely positioned to oversee your business’s social media accounts, from planning and posting content to monitoring your pages. The social media manager will, for example, oversee your accounts to ensure the integrity, authenticity, and statutory compliance of all your social media content.

The Takeaway

Social media can be a tremendously powerful marketing and engagement tool for businesses in the healthcare field. However, the channel also carries significant risks, including cybersecurity threats and the potential for HIPAA violations, reputational damage, and inadvertent medical malpractice. The good news, though, is that risks can be effectively managed with careful, strategic, and deliberate action.


Katie Brenneman

Katie Brenneman is a passionate writer specializing in lifestyle, mental health, education, and fitness-related content. When she isn't writing, you can find her with her nose buried in a book or hiking with her dog, Charlie. To connect with Brenneman, you can follow her on Twitter.

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