Physicians: Exercise Caution When Using Social Media

When a physician accesses social media – whether it be LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter or another social media site – it is very important to be honest, respect privacy, and uphold the reputation of the medical profession.  It is also important to seriously consider separating one’s professional use of social media from one’s personal use.

Physicians must be aware of what is being posted online and how it is presented, given the ever-increasing use of social networking and blogs.  Physician employers should also be aware of what their employees are posting online, both professionally and personally.  Many employers in the health care field have established social media policies to govern the use of social media both during and after work hours.  

Additionally, physicians need to take into account the use of online rating sites and search engines by patients.  How can these sites affect a physician and his or her practice?  Physicians should work to understand, manage and proactively review their online identity and personal brand.

A smart strategy for physicians is to consider all postings – whether professional or personal – as public.  Examine privacy settings closely.

Finally, in the event that a physician communicates directly with patients electronically, it is crucial to do so via secure messaging, have a physician-patient communications policy in place, and comply with the rules of such policy.

Source: Rajecki, Ron. “Be Careful When Using Social Media.” Medical Economics. 12 May 2011.

© 2011 Parsonage Vandenack Williams LLC

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Hospital to Pay $1 Million to Settle HIPAA Privacy Claims

The federal government has made clear that it is serious about enforcing the HIPAA Privacy and Security Rules.  Before HITECH’s data breach notification requirements were in place and being enforced, a Massachusetts General Hospital employee took documents containing protected health information (“PHI”) from her bag and placed them on the seat beside her while commuting on the subway. The documents were left on the subway and never recovered.  Unfortunately, the documents included PHI of 192 patients who had been treated in the hospital’s infectious disease practice, including HIV/AIDS patients. 

The hospital and its physicians’ organization have agreed to pay the federal government $1 million in fines related to the subway incident. The hospital has also agreed to develop a comprehensive new privacy policy to prevent patient information from being compromised in the future, which includes providing training to workers. The hospital is required to remit semi-annual compliance reports to the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services for the next three years.

“To avoid enforcement penalties, covered entities must ensure they are always in compliance with the HIPAA Privacy and Security Rules,” HHS Office of Civil Rights Director Georgina Verdugo said in a statement. “A robust compliance program includes employee training, vigilant implementation of policies and procedures, regular internal audits, and a prompt action plan to respond to incidents.”

The settlement stems from a 2009 complaint from a patient whose personal health information was lost.

Source: Donnelly, Julie M. Boston Business Journal. 24 Feb. 2011.

© 2011 Parsonage Vandenack Williams LLC

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Avoiding Claims of Patient Abandonment




The term “patient abandonment” sounds very serious, and in fact, is a quite serious claim against a physician or surgeon.  A claim of patient abandonment could arise when a physician retires or relocates to a new practice group.  If a patient were to succeed on such a claim, the physician or surgeon would face liability for malpractice, which could result in serious damage to his or her reputation.  There are, however, very specific elements that a patient must meet in order to establish a claim of patient abandonment.  Physicians and surgeons who understand the meaning of patient abandonment and the required elements thereof can make sure to fulfill their duties to patients and avoid any potential claims of abandonment.


A claim for “abandonment” involves the termination of the professional relationship between the physician and the patient at an unreasonable time or without affording the patient the opportunity to procure an equally qualified replacement.  Still, a physician does have the right to withdraw from a case upon giving proper notice that he is under a duty to continue attending to the patient until all the conditions for  appropriate withdrawal are complied with.

Avoiding Claims of Patient Abandonment


Once a professional relationship is established with a patient, physicians are responsible for continuing treatment unless the physician-patient relationship has been terminated. Failure to formally terminate the physician-patient relationship can result in a malpractice claim alleging abandonment.

It is sometimes appropriate and recommended to terminate the physician-patient relationship if the patient:

  • Shows a continued lack of cooperation in the treatment process
  • Cancels or “no shows” for an excessive number of appointments
  • Fails to pay for care provided after an extended “grace” period
  • Is extremely rude, abusive, or threatening

A letter should be sent to the patient via regular and registered mail informing him/her of the termination of the physician-patient relationship. Following are guidelines for a termination letter:

  • Give a specific date, at least 30 days, with sufficient time for the patient to make arrangements for another physician’s services
  • Offer emergency care in the interim
  • Provide resources for finding another provider
  • Offer to provide copies of the patient’s medical record (with proper authorization) to the new provider
  • Maintain copies of all correspondence and communication in the medical record

 By following the tips stated above, physicians and surgeons can reduce potential liability for a claim of patient abandonment in the event that the physician deems it necessary to terminate a relationship with a patient.

© 2009 Parsonage Vandenack Williams LLC

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Institutional Review Boards for Clinical Trials

       In the United States, clinical trials are reviewed and approved by institutional review boards (“IRBs”).  IRBs are most often composed of physicians, scientists, and lay people.  They review study protocols and consent documents in order to make sure that the participants’ rights are protected, and that the particular study does not pose a burdensome or unnecessary risk to the participants. 

      It is very important for those conducting and participating in clinical trials to know that not all IRBs are equal.  Many IRBs have trouble keeping up with their workload, which could mean that protocols developed by well-regarded doctors and professors at some major institutions are basically automatically approved by the IRBs.  Other IRBs may prove ineffective due to the mix of characters on the board, with lay people intimidated by the stronger personalities in the medical field. 

     Clinical trial providers and their sponsors should screen IRBs as a regular risk management practice.  Sponsor companies may want to prequalify IRBs.  Sponsor companies may also attempt to determine whether all of the members of an IRB are qualified to be on the board.  Companies should try to select IRBs that are working toward accreditation.  Seeking out IRBs that meet these standards is certainly in the best interests of the sponsor.  Sponsors clearly want IRBs to approve their study, but if the IRB does not perform its job properly and something goes wrong during the clinical trial, the sponsor company could be held liable.  As such, screening IRBs is a positive preventive measure that all clinical trials providers and sponsors should consider implementing as a necessary part of their clinical trial procedure.[1]


[1] Jill Wadlund, Heading Off a Clinical Trial Liability Lawsuit, APPLIED CLINICAL TRIALS, vol. 12, no. 4, pp. 50-53.



© 2008 Parsonage Vandenack Williams LLC


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