While it’s true, of course, that revealing a patient’s personal information is a violation of privacy laws, that does not mean that a physician cannot safely provide generalized information via online sources. One recent article pointed out that many doctors go online these days. Some have interactions with their patients that way. One doctor corresponds with patients and others via Facebook. When asked about the chances of a fetus becoming infected by swimming in public pools, the doctor recognized that the question was general enough, and asked often enough, to justify a GENERALIZED answer. Without getting into that particular patient’s situation, he answered about the risk in a generalized sense.

This would be about the same as answering general questions about physiology. For example, one could write that the human body is generally at 98.6 degrees F., and go on to explain that a number of other factors may mean that the individual’s normal baseline body temperature can be lower or slightly higher. One could even elaborate further about possible causes of temperature variations without violating anyone’s privacy. Of course, it’s wise to have a straightforward disclaimer that plainly states that the statements are provided as a public service and are generalized, not intended to be used to diagnose or cure any ailment, etc. Good sense should be employed, so as not to plant seeds where there ought not to be any sown. As a general rule of thumb, if you could safely provide that information to anyone and everyone without concern that it will be misconstrued or abused, you should be safe.

When so many actions can be used against a physician, it is a fair question to ask why one would risk providing such information. Aside from the pro bono aspects, it’s good advertising, and educating patients about the general truths does much to counteract all the myths that lead to false and unnecessary concerns. Overall, it’s good that patients know a bit about the basics of human physiology. For example, generalized statements about the potential dangers of combining over-the-counter medications would be a public service, and get people talking about the doctor and his practice in a good way. This can generate good will (and potentially more patients) and can help people in areas far from that doctor’s practice.

In short, it can be a really good thing to have some open dialogue with patients and the general public (assuming you’ve the time to do so.) Much can be said in the public that is not a violation of HIPAA. BUT BE CAREFUL – a generous bit of sense should be applied liberally. Do your best to be sure what you post helps you rather than backfiring and working against you. If reasonable sense is employed, one can use social media to broaden the patient base and interact with the public. Doing so can improve your overall reputation.