8 Ways to Avoid Ethical Pitfalls in Social Media – Part One

Thursday, April 25, 2013 17:07

By Barbara Ficarra, RN, BSN, MPA

Do the ethical rules of law apply to medicine?

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Ethical issues in social media are a concern for attorneys, and health care professionals can learn from attorneys on how to avoid ethical blowups.

In a recent article in the New York State Bar Association State Bar News, it states that attorneys face a minefield of potential ethical problems when it comes to using social media to boost business or interact with clients. The article, “Using social media, cell phones can bring difficult ethical pitfalls cases to intellectual property landscape,” offers good advice for attorneys which can be applied to the health care arena.

Best advice for avoiding ethical blowups

  1. Be aware that everything you post online is a reflection of you. Don’t criticize a judge for a verdict that didn’t go your way and don’t give out legal advice. “These things have a way of getting back to you and biting you in the rear,” said Jeremy Feinberg, special counsel for ethics at the state Office of Court Administration.”
  2. “Despite security features, privacy settings and other protections, no one is truly anonymous on the Internet, at least for very long, Feinberg said.” (He noted the incident with Manti Te’o, University of Notre Dame football star and the Internet hoax against him. Subsequently, the perpetrator of the prank was identified.)
  3. Privacy settings on a Facebook page should be considered only a little insurance warned Feinberg and David A. Lewis (Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP). “Feinberg said in order to make the best use of privacy settings, it is important that attorneys keep abreast of the latest technological changes relating to particular social media outlets.”
  4. Feinberg and Lewis states there are problems using cell phones to communicate with clients via voice mail or text messaging. “Because phone numbers can be transferred, it is possible for an attorney or a client to share privileged information with a stranger, should one or the other change his or her cell phone number. Cell phones and other electronic messaging tools, Feinberg advised, are best reserved for scheduling and mundane messages.”
  5. Attorneys need to be careful of the ethical issues relating to blogging. Blogging is a popular way for attorneys to discuss legal matters online. (Feinberg and Lewis)
  6. “Attorneys offering opinions in response to a question posted on a blog inadvertently could be establishing a lawyer-client relationship. Blogging also could violate other rules, such as those governing attorney advertising.” (Lewis)
  7. “Friending” someone on Facebook or connecting with someone on Linkedin can pose problems for attorneys. Lawyers checking out a juror’s profile could be considered inappropriate conduct. (Feinberg and Lewis)
  8. “When having online contact with unrepresented parties, Rule 4.3 of the Rules of Professional Conduct comes into play.” Lewis and Feinberg’s advice: “Do not dispense legal advice, other than advising the individual to get a lawyer, and keep any communication as free of legal language as possible.


While these tips are specific to attorneys, health care professionals can learn from them. Health care professionals can avoid a minefield of ethical problems if they engage in social media judiciously.

Advice 1 through 3 applies to anyone who is online. Don’t criticize anyone, understand no one is truly anonymous and privacy settings have little insurance, but 4 through 8 needs to be addressed for health care professionals. Social Media has transformed the way health care professionals communicate in health care today. Physicians are texting and emailing patients, they are blogging and they are on Facebook and Linkedin and they are interacting with patients. Do the rules of giving out medical advice apply to physicians who engage with patients via telemedicine? Do the ethical rules of law apply to medicine?

In my upcoming interview with attorney David A. Lewis, I will address these issues and more, and I will bring them to you in Part II. Stay tuned.


Mahoney, Mark, (March/April 2013). Using social media, cell phones can bring difficult ethical pitfalls cases to intellectual property landscape, Vol. 55. No. 2, New York State Bar Association, State Bar News, p. 16.

Your turn

Does your organization have ethical guidelines? What are they? How do you avoid ethical pitfalls?  Please share your insights in the comment section below.

As always, thank you for your very valuable time.

More on the legal aspects of social media for health care professionals can be found here.

More on Legal Aspects of Social Media Here


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