The Biggest Legal Pitfalls of a Medical Blog
The benefits of maintaining a medical blog for your practice are undeniable. A blog gives you the opportunity to share your unique approach to medicine and establish yourself as an expert in your niche. A blog allows you to educate patients on a deeper level between visits. A blog improves the search engine optimization (SEO) for your website, helping you reach a broader audience. A medical blog creates considerable benefits and opportunities, but it is not without risk. Read on to learn how to avoid 3 legal pitfalls of a medical blog.*
Now let's get to those legal pitfalls...
1. Making Unsupported Claims Blogs are not peer-reviewed. You can pretty much say anything and make any claim. Be aware: when you publish content online, your reputation and your medical license are on the line. A 2013 systematic review found that unreliable and poor-quality information was routinely shared by health professionals via social channels. Best practice is to share only evidence-based claims that can be backed up by science. For naturopathic and integrative physicians, there is the added complication of making claims about dietary supplements. The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA) allows for 3 types of claims related to dietary supplements: general well-being claims, structure-function claims, and nutrient-deficiency claims. That’s it. When you write a blog about a dietary supplement, do not make claims that it can diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent a disease. Explain its mechanism of action (structure-function) and cite references for any claims. The anecdotal and interactive nature of blogs and social media can be a slippery slope for healthcare practitioners. Before posting a blog article, be sure it is true to your beliefs and can be backed up by evidence. If the evidence is not there, be clear that you are merely sharing your experience and opinion.
2. Giving Medical Advice If you are writing blogs and sharing them on social media, somebody will inevitably post a comment asking for medical advice. It may seem harmless, and you may want to help, but don’t do it. Providing medical advice outside of the doctor-patient relationship could put you at risk of a lawsuit. One way to avoid giving medical advice online is to have a response drafted that you can cut and paste as needed. The response should include 3 elements: a statement that you cannot provide medical advice in this context; information on how to contact your office to schedule an appointment; and what to do in case of a medical emergency. If you have an established relationship with a patient and communicate online, the best practice is to communicate via secure channels rather than via third-party websites. Provide disclaimers in advance that explain expected timeline of response and privacy policies for online communication.
3. Breaching Patient Confidentiality You might mistakenly breach patient confidentiality by sharing their case story online, sharing a testimonial, or merely interacting on public social channels. HIPAA policy governs the distribution of patient information, but it does not restrict the distribution of “de-identified” medical information. This means that you are permitted to share case examples on your blog or social channels, provided that there is no identifying information about the patient. You can take extra precaution by having the patient sign a consent form. You can legally share patient testimonials, including video testimonials, provided that you have a signed consent from the patient.
Other Considerations Making unsupported claims, providing medical advice, and breaching patient confidentiality are 3 legal pitfalls of a medical blog that can have dire consequences. A subtler pitfall is the blurring of your professional relationship with patients. Best practice is to refuse personal “friend requests” from patients on social channels and instead direct patients to follow your professional business pages. Also, be aware of copyright laws. Although not specific to a medical blog, copyright infringement can become a massive legal headache. Be particularly cautious when choosing images to share on your blog. Choose royalty-free stock images or images that are licensed for public use. Another blogger might have an incredible image of a “leaky gut,” but chances are that they own the copyright to that image. And finally, be sure you have professionally written terms and conditions, privacy policies, and disclaimers on your website. The simple act of having these legal documents in place could save you in case of any legal complaint. Check out The Online Genius Template Library as an efficient way to get all of the legal documents you need for your website and medical blog. Put these systems in place, and then go for it! Blogging can be one of the best ways to share your message with the masses and to grow an audience for your medical practice.
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Helm J, Jones RM. Practice Paper of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Social Media and the Dietetics Practitioner: Opportunities, Challenges, and Best Practices. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2016;116 (11):1825-1835.
Moorhead SA, Hazlett DE, Harrison L, Carroll JK, Irwin A, Hoving C. A new dimension of health care: systematic review of the uses, benefits, and limitations of social media for health communication. J Med Internet Res. 2013;15 (4):e85.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Structure/Function Claims. FDA Website. Updated December 14, 2017. Accessed February 23, 2018.
*The information in this article is for informational purposes and should not substitute for professional legal or medical advice. There may be affiliate links in this article.