Social Media Marketing

David Kinard, M.Ed.

David Kinard is Associate Vice President of Marketing and Communications at Physicians Insurance and the past president of the Puget Sound chapter of the American Marketing Association. He is probably tweeting right now about how much he loves his work.

Promoting Yourself, Your Practice, or Your Thought Leadership While Staying HIPAA-Compliant

Many physicians and clinic administrators choose not to promote their practices because of potential HIPAA violations. And the notion of using social media to engage with their community is out of the question because there are too many inherent problems. But what if you could engage with your patient community, promote your practice, and remain HIPAA-compliant—all with your current resources?

According to the Federal Register, the general definition of marketing under HIPAA is a communication about a product or service that encourages recipients to purchase or use the product or service (of the covered entity or third party) in which the intent of the communication is not relevant (67 F.R. 53,186). Most people stop there, but doing so limits your ability to connect and engage with your communities. Promoting health in a general manner is not marketing. Mailings promoting health fairs or support groups, providing information about new diagnostic tools, reminding women to get annual mammograms (67 F.R. 53,189)—all these are completely allowable under HIPAA.

HIPAA does not distinguish between the various marketing channels in its general definition, allowing you to choose the best medium for communicating and engaging with your target population. And while there are some exceptions to the general rule, for the most part you can avoid the more complex and riskier parts of marketing under HIPAA by keeping a few things in mind:  

  1. Become the leading voice in your community about your field or specialty. Become the clinic or physician that promotes general information and education about a topic—and you can do this via all forms of marketing and social media.
  2. Always maintain your professionalism when using social media. Don’t use your personal Facebook page for your practice. Instead, start a separate page for your practice or clinic where business information can be posted without your personal photos or family messages getting mixed up.
  3. Avoid providing any form of medical care in social media. If a patient asks for help in your Facebook page or via Twitter, simply reply by asking the patient to call the office or make an appointment.
  4. Never use personally identifiable information in any of your promotional or social media communications.
  5. You can use a testimonial or photo of a patient only if you have a signed release allowing you to do so. Keep in mind that a patient can, at any time, revoke the rights to use his or her image, name, or testimonial, so you will need to create a mechanism to pull materials in circulation if needed.

Marketing and engaging in social media is absolutely allowed under HIPAA. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to promote yourself, your practice, or your thought leadership—all while promoting ideas and behaviors that lead to healthier patients. With a little time, and some thoughtful approaches, you can safely market and use social media without running into compliance issues.