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10/15/2009
02:55 PM
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner
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Boston Hospital Bans Facebook

New England Baptist Hospital banned Facebook and other social media, citing privacy concerns over employees revealing too much information about patients in their online posts, and complaints about employees wasting time online. The ban will remain in place until the hospital can come up with a social media policy, according to reports.

New England Baptist Hospital banned Facebook and other social media, citing privacy concerns over employees revealing too much information about patients in their online posts, and complaints about employees wasting time online. The ban will remain in place until the hospital can come up with a social media policy, according to reports.The hospital banned Facebook and other social media after checking with other area hospitals. Some have blocked Facebook at work for months, others, including Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, say social media helps build workplace community, according to a report in the Boston Herald.

"We are a leading-edge hospital filled with technology and innovation," said [New England Baptist Hospital] spokeswoman Erin McDonough, "but when it comes to patient privacy, that's priority one."

McDonough said employees complained to hospital administrators several times this summer about co-workers spending a lot of time on Facebook.

As the complaints mounted, administrators realized that they have strict policies on e-mail, but nothing for increasingly popular social networking sites.

The hospital hopes the ban to last six months, until it gets policies in place and develops electronic tools to monitor use and content.

Social media use at work is a complicated issue in any business, made more complicated in the healthcare industry, because healthcare isn't just a business--it's a sacred trust with people's lives, and most personal information. I think it's great that New England Baptist Hospital is taking these issues seriously.

Some of the abuse described in the brief Herald article point to some possible, deeper problems, and I hope that the hospital isn't so focused on a symptom--social media abuse--that it ignores potential underlying causes.

If hospital workers are disclosing confidential patient data on Facebook, the problem might not be Facebook--the problem might be that workers aren't sufficiently knowledgeable about patient privacy. Employees might also be disclosing confidential patient data to their families, their neighbors, and people who can overhear the employees chatting in the hospital cafeteria.

Likewise, if employees are wasting time on Facebook, they might also be wasting time doing other things. The hospital might simply be hiring the wrong people, or treating them badly enough that they're slacking off rather than working.

Paul Levy, President and CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, said he thinks banning social media at hospitals is a bad idea. Writing on his blog, Running a Hospital, he says:

Any form of communication (even conversations in the elevator!) can violate important privacy rules, but limiting people's access to social media in the workplace will mainly inhibit the growth of community and discourage useful information sharing. It also creates a generational gap, in that Facebook, in particular, is often the medium of choice for people of a certain age. I often get many useful suggestions from staff in their 20's and 30's who tend not to use email. Finally, consider the cost of building and using tools that attempt to "track utilization and monitor content." Not worth the effort, I say.

Levy told the Industry Standard that younger staff at his hospital use Facebook messages, wall posts, and IM for informal chats and suggestions, but "when the talk turns to specific patients or other sensitive subjects, they switch to more secure electronic channels -- or better yet, talk about the issues in person or on the telephone."

Boston Medical Center has "a long-standing ban on using hospital computers and networks for accessing Facebook, MySpace, YouTube and Google Docs, and for that matter, any site featuring 'sex, drugs, and rock and roll,'" the Standard said, quoting an anonymous source.

Nevertheless, the BMC ban is widely viewed as counterproductive, according to our source. For instance, the medical center's own development department once created a Facebook page and encouraged staff to participate. When the staff replied that they could not access it at work, they were asked to take part in the electronic community from home. This request was not well-received.

I like that. "Not well-received." I can only imagine.

And a social networking ban like the one at New England Baptist Hospital has several potential holes, the Standard notes. Staff carry around their own mobile devices which can access social media. Also, Boston University School of Medicine has offices and other facilities located inside the Boston Medical Center campus, so if Boston Medical employees want to access blocked sites, "it's simply a matter of accessing a wireless access point from a BU office one floor up."

InformationWeek has published an in-depth report on e-health and the federal stimulus package. Download the report here (registration required).

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