The Role of Social Media for Registered Nurses

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Social media can be a helpful resource for nurses because it can encourage meaningful discussions, connections with peers and professional development. But platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, SnapChat and YouTube also present the potential for professional pitfalls.

Nurses and doctors using social media

Nurses must strictly adhere to state and federal laws that safeguard patient confidentiality. Online posts that seem innocent at first may violate a patient’s right to privacy or destroy a nurse’s career. Missteps can go viral in an instant and consequences can be harsh.

As licensed professionals dealing with private information, nurses are held to high ethical standards. When they cross professional boundaries with inappropriate use of social media, they can be fired, fined and may lose their licenses.

However, nurses who successfully harness the power of online platforms can help raise awareness of health issues. Katherine Smith Lockler, a registered nurse who works at multiple emergency rooms in northwest Florida, posted an entertaining six-minute Facebook video about flu prevention which has since been viewed almost 10 million times. In it, she lightheartedly proclaimed the importance of washing “your stinkin’ hands,” among other flu-prevention tips. Despite the video’s popularity and Lockler’s good-humored manner, some viewers took issue with the tone of the video and reported Lockler to the state’s board of nursing. Others signed a petition in her favor.

RNs need to know how to navigate social media with ethics and professionalism. Such values are a part of the Duquesne University RNBSN courses. The university’s program provides nurses with the skills they need to excel.

Inappropriate Use of Social Media

A frequent social media misstep for nurses involves naming patients or providing enough information about patients so they can be identified. The federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) gives patients rights over their private health information and sets rules and limits on who can view the information. Those HIPAA guidelines apply to social media posts. Releasing any health information about patients, even by accident, is illegal. Violations can carry fines of up to $50,000, according to the American Medical Association.

Some nurses have learned the lesson the hard way. A nurse at the Glencroft Senior Living facility in Glendale, AZ, was suspended and reported to the state nursing board after posting a video to social media making fun of an elderly patient. Another nurse saw the video and reported it, local news ABC15 reported.

Carlton G. Brown, PhD, RN, advises nurses to avoid connecting with or following patients on any social media platform if they did not have a previous relationship with the person. In her article, “Must-Read Social Media Advice for Nurses,” Brown said exchanging personal information is considered unprofessional and could expose a patient’s identity despite the best intentions.

When nurses log in to a social media account, legal and ethical implications must be on their minds, even when they are not at work.

Nurses should take care not to mention sensitive details, refer to patients in a demeaning manner or exploit workplace anecdotes for attention, the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) states. A post that details the circumstances of death, for example, could be considered insensitive and unethical, even if the patient’s name is not mentioned.

Posting disparaging comments about co-workers or employers can result in disciplinary action. “Online comments by a nurse regarding co-workers, even if posted from home during non-work hours, may constitute lateral violence,” according to the NCSBN. “… Such comments can be detrimental to a cohesive healthcare delivery team and may result in sanctions against the nurse.”

Healthcare attorney Carolyn Buppert, MSN, says comment sections on social media can be another danger area for nursing and social media. Taking sides in arguments can cross professional boundaries. Buppert also advises nurses to avoid establishing a “duty of care” by giving medical advice on social media. For example, if an online commenter asks what to do about a particular health issue in an online forum or even on a nurse’s blog, the nurse should advise the person to see a healthcare provider. If someone suffered an injury based on the nurse’s advice, the nurse could be sued for malpractice.

Professional Use of Social Media

Brittney Wilson, RN, BSN, said nurses have many acceptable ways to engage on their favorite platforms and maintain professional behavior online. Wilson, the author of the popular Nerdy Nurse blog, says nurses should limit their social media posts to information about themselves, their families, their interests and the nursing profession in general. Her other tips include:

  • Never discuss patients or identify co-workers
  • Avoid identifying your employer on your social media profiles
  • Do not post anything online that you would not say in public
  • Write posts that lift up the nursing profession
  • Do not post to social media while at work
  • Realize that nothing online is ever really anonymous
  • Know your employer’s social media policies
  • Do not post anything that could degrade or embarrass the profession

Nursing and social media can also come together for other professional purposes.

For example, Twitter, with its real-time reach, can be an effective way for nurses to bring awareness to preventive health campaigns, epidemic information or other useful tips, says Jonathan Greene, social media expert and author of Facebook is a Pub Crawl: 15 Simple Strategies for Social Media Excellence. Nurses are urged to take care that the information they share on social media is medically correct.

Some nurses and doctors use YouTube to post informative videos about all kinds of topics, which can be useful to students pursuing a BSN.

Duquesne University creates helpful videos about its programs and posts them on YouTube. One such video outlines the university’s “Nurses in Nicaragua” study-abroad program where nursing students can spend spring break caring for patients in the nation. The video is intended to encourage students to take advantage of the educational opportunity and explains the details of the program, which is one of many related to Duquesne’s School of Nursing. The university also posts informative videos on various social media platforms to help students find the right program for them.

The modern nurse must be able to navigate social media with a professional and mature attitude that uplifts the profession. By advancing their education with an RN- BSN degree online, RNs will be better equipped to handle the many challenges of the digital age.

With an advanced degree in nursing, RNs can move on to higher-paying positions in their field that give them more freedom to make an impact in their workplace and take on leadership roles.

About Duquesne University’s Online RN-BSN Courses

The Duquesne University online RN-BSN courses are flexible, so RNs can continue their education and advance their careers at the same time. The program offers three start dates per year and accepts transferred credits.

The RN-BSN online program also provides one-on-one faculty mentorships and ample opportunities to collaborate with other BSN students from around the country. For more information, visit DU’s online RN-BSN program website.