I’m done whining about Facebook privacy issues. Everyone should know by now that Facebook and privacy are basically mutually exclusive.

But every once in a while, someone does something stupid relating to Facebook privacy in a new, exciting way — like stealing a computer and posting photos of yourself on the owner’s page, or uploading placenta pics from your nursing-school class. We enjoy mocking covering such special occasions. It’s even better when Facebook bungles have larger implications.

Last week, an emergency room doctor in Rhode Island got reprimanded and fined $500 by the state medical board. (She had been fired from her hospital last year.)

Why? She posted information about a patient on Facebook….

Dr. Alexandra Thran, who worked at Westerly Hospital, “did not include the patient’s name, but she wrote enough that others in the community could identify the patient,” according to the Boston Globe. UPDATE: An “unauthorized third party” figured out who the post was about. Thran deleted the post when she realized she was in trouble, so we don’t know exactly what she wrote.

(My first question is: Why on earth would you want to be Facebook friends with your doctor? No, wait; she was an emergency room doctor. That makes much more sense.)

Thran’s Facebooking may have violated HIPAA, the law that, among other things, ensures privacy for health information. As the Globe points out, “doctors can face civil or criminal penalties for disclosing personal information — online or off.”

Regulators in Rhode Island said Thran’s case is the first time they’ve had to deal with a physician inappropriately using social media. The Massachusetts medical board has never had to deal with it, according to the article, but it has been a problem in other parts of the country.

Everyone and their mother is on Facebook now. The old strategy of only friending (God, I hate that word), well, friends, as opposed to your co-workers, priests, orthodontists, whatever, is kaput. See, e.g., David Lat’s Facebook profile.

Obviously doctors are on the grid, too, explains the Globe:

That’s the easy part, said Dr. Dan Nigrin, chief information officer and an endocrinologist [at Children’s Hospital Boston]. What happens when a longtime patient “friends’’ a doctor or nurse on Facebook? Nigrin said it has happened to him, and it made him uncomfortable, despite the good relationship he had with the patient.

“Is it appropriate for a patient that I’m caring for to see comments that my high school friends are talking about from 30 years ago?’’ he said. “Probably not.’’

Hospitals are starting to craft policies to prevent not only dumb overshares but illegal ones. Because wisely or not, a lot of people like to complain about the workplace online, like this awesome Australian guy.

Doctors are people too, and anyone whose girlfriend sometimes makes him watch Grey’s Anatomy knows medical workers have plenty to complain about. But ethically and legally, violating the privacy of the people under your care might be worse than publicly insulting your cretinous boss:

Navigating the tell-all online culture can be tricky for any professional but particularly for those who must balance strict rules on patient protection. Cases across the country have highlighted the institutional challenge.

A Wisconsin hospital and several in California have made headlines in recent years as nurses and other staff members were fired for talking about patients on Facebook or posting photographs of them online.

Everyone has stuff they should avoid putting online unless they want to look like a jerk — your clubbing photos from last weekend, for example. But people who have certain sensitive jobs, such as doctors, teachers and even lawyers, need to be extra careful not to betray the trust inherent to their work, online and off.

In a nutshell: Whatever your vocation is, don’t say dumb things on the Internet that will open you or your employer up to legal liability.


Christopher Danzig is a writer in Oakland, California. He previously covered legal technology for InsideCounsel magazine. Follow Chris on Twitter @chrisdanzig or email him at [email protected]. You can read more of his work at chrisdanzig.com.


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