Thursday Troubleshooter: Is it a HIPAA violation to invite patients to become friends on Facebook?

This dental hygienist invited a patient to become friends on Facebook. Did he violate HIPAA?

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QUESTION: I’m a dental hygienist. I recently saw one of my patient’s Facebook profiles on the “People you may know” list on my Facebook page. I sent her a friend request. Did I violate the HIPAA law?

ANSWER FROM ALEJANDRA BROWN, Founder of Kirke Management Consulting:
Sending friend requests on Facebook does not violate HIPAA requirements, unless you include a message with your request that directly addresses the patient’s personal health information. This issue is more of a professional and personal conundrum. Do you want to cross this boundary and seem like you are not professional enough, or not cross it and come across as unapproachable? I know people in dental practices in small communities where everyone knows everyone, so becoming friends on Facebook is not a big deal.

Having said this, my advice would be to check with management first and ask if there are any policies in place regarding the use of social media to communicate directly with patients. If there are no policies, then use your best judgement and ensure that you do not share health information or any workplace stories. Even though these stories may not identify anyone by name, they might provide enough context so that someone could guess who you are referring to.


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