Social Networking and Legal Liability

Privacy on the Internet presents challenges due to the rapid expansion of social networking sites. In the past, a simple conversation would come and go, never being recorded. Now, with the easy storage of a practically unlimited amount of data, text conversations can be long lasting, lasting a lifetime.

This growth in digital communication along with smaller and cheaper data storage is of particular concern when the topic of conversation on the social networking site turns to a person’s health. The common practice among physicians for a long time has been the “curbside consult,” and people in all sorts of occupations participate in such informal and previously private discussions. But what happens when the curbside consult becomes digitized? That’s what a group of researchers from Georgia recently asked.

Their study looked at regulatory code, case law, and guidelines of conduct for professional organizations. They also reviewed an online social networking site for orthopedic physicians, OrthoMind. The conclusion after completing their review was that liability existed for professional discussions that utilized openly accessible social network platforms. There are medical society guidelines that mitigate the risk by providing common-sense practices, however, the case law is weak. Closed networks, not available to the general public, provide some protection against inadvertent breeches of private information.

This study focused on physicians, but it is applicable to the wider health care community and other people dealing with confidential and private information. The digitization of conversations makes any online conversation much less private than a personal, quiet discussion alone with one other person. While gossip can often be discounted as rumor, a digital record is generally considered more accurate and more permanent.

The authors conclude that the benefits of social networking are significant, and that orthopedic surgeons should at least consider participation. Prior to participation, it is recommended that the physicians fully educate themselves about the best way to utilize the technology.


Hyman JL et al. Online Professional Networks for Physicians: Risk Management. Clin Orthop Relat Res. 2011 Nov 29. [Epub ahead of print]

Baird T. The Truth About Facebook – Privacy Settings Every Facebook User Should Know, and Much More – The Facts You Should Know [2009]

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