Social Media in Healthcare: A Slippery Slope

MedPro Group Patient Safety & Risk Solutions

In the past two decades, social media has become ubiquitous in the United States and abroad. The widespread proliferation of electronic messaging, social networking, media sharing, discussion forums, blogging, and more has connected people in new and engaging ways that traditional forms of communication have not. The ability to quickly communicate and share information has shaped how people interact as well as their expectations related to those interactions.

Research shows that nearly 72 percent of U.S. adults use social media sites — such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, LinkedIn, and Pinterest — and the average person accesses seven different social media platforms per month.1 Because social media use is more prevalent with younger age groups, it is realistic to assume that its popularity and role in many types of communication will continue to grow.

In the past, healthcare was relatively slow to implement social media as marketing and communication tools, primarily because of concerns about violating patient privacy. However, as consumer demand has risen, and organizations attempt to find new ways to connect with patients, social media has become more of a mainstay for healthcare organizations of all types and sizes. Yet, with social media benefits come risks; leveraging social media for professional purposes can be a slippery slope, and its use in healthcare presents various challenges.

This article discusses opportunities and common risks associated with using social media for healthcare communication and delivery, and it also offers strategies that healthcare providers and their staff members can implement to reduce risks.

What Are the Potential Benefits of Social Media?

The use of social media can bring significant communication and educational benefits to both healthcare providers and consumers. Many healthcare providers use social media to connect with professional groups and peers, research medical information, and stay up to date with new information and research that might affect patient care and daily practice. Further, providers use social media to post educational content and other information for patients, to market and advertise services, and to enhance visibility and reputation.

For consumers, social media can assist with searching for new healthcare providers, keeping up with healthcare issues and concerns, finding support groups, researching alternative medications and side effects, tracking information from health apps, and more. Data from the Pew Research Center show that more than one-third of U.S. adults have used the internet to try to figure out a medical issue, and other research shows that social media tools influence the choice of a specific hospital, medical facility, or doctor for 4 in 10 people.2

What Are the Risks of, and Strategies for, Using Social Media?

Undoubtedly, social media offers various functions that may potentially enhance the dissemination of healthcare information and communication among healthcare providers and between providers and patients. But what about the risks? Like any type of technology, social media can create safety and liability issues if it is not used responsibly. Additionally, because social media changes rapidly, standards and best practices are not always well-defined.

To address these challenges, healthcare leaders, providers, and staff members should be aware of the potential risks associated with digital interactions, develop detailed social media policies, and implement risk strategies to safeguard their patients and practices.

Maintain Privacy and Security

In healthcare, one of the most significant concerns related to social media is the need to maintain strict confidentiality and safeguard patients’ protected health information (PHI). This obligation is addressed in federal law and governed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA). Many states also have laws related to privacy and security of patients’ PHI — and these laws might be more stringent than federal laws.

Because the boundaries between appropriate versus inappropriate and personal versus professional use of social media can easily blur, managing privacy risks can be challenging. For example, numerous instances have occurred in which healthcare workers have posted pictures of, or details about, their patients on their professional or personal social media pages without patients’ consent. Regardless of whether these actions were intentional or inadvertent, they violated confidentiality and the patients’ privacy rights.3 ECRI explains that social media can elevate privacy concerns because it “distributes information instantaneously to a wide audience; also, unlike in-person conversations, use of social media creates a permanent electronic record that is likely discoverable in litigation.”4

Various risk management strategies can help healthcare practices address privacy concerns related to social media. For example:

  • Ensure providers and staff members are aware of what types of information and personal identifiers are considered PHI under HIPAA.
  • Do no post or publish any content on social media sites that contains identifying information (including photographs and testimonials) without the patient’s permission and written consent. The consent should explicitly state how the information will be used.
  • Consider prohibiting the photographic use of cellphones and other portable electronic devices (PEDs) as part of organizational policy.
  • Have someone who is familiar with HIPAA and state privacy regulations review social media content to ensure information does not violate patient confidentiality.
  • Train providers and staff members on HIPAA and state privacy laws, and educate them about the consequences of violating these regulations.
  • Ask providers and staff members to sign confidentiality agreements, and maintain a signed copy of the agreement in each employee’s personnel file.
  • Be aware that responding to a patient post or review on a social media site might violate privacy laws.
  • Understand the technical limitations and terms and conditions of any social media sites that you plan to use. For example, information sent via messaging functions is likely not encrypted, and the site might maintain the right to access any personal information.

Taking steps to address privacy concerns by developing social media policies and implementing strategic safeguards can help protect patients and reduce liability exposure.

Establish Appropriate Boundaries

Social media can create a new dynamic in provider–patient relationships, and it also can generate ethical and legal challenges. Dr. Humayun Chaudhry, the Federation of State Medical Boards’ President and CEO, has warned that “Anything physicians post on sites can be forwarded, taken out of context, and accessed and retrieved in perpetuity. That’s a fact that many physicians don’t always think about when they engage in social media.”5

Because social media is used for both personal and professional purposes, the boundaries between the two can sometimes become difficult to distinguish. However, healthcare providers generally should assume that their staff members and patients are likely using some form of social media, and anyone could potentially see social media posts that the provider or a staff member creates as well as what anyone else writes about the healthcare practice on social media sites.

Because of these concerns about personal and professional boundaries, healthcare professionals are advised to keep their personal and professional social media activities separate and to “comport themselves professionally in both.”6 For example, healthcare providers should not “friend” patients on Facebook or mix social relationships with their professional relationships. Instead, they should apply the same ethical principles that govern their traditional patient encounters to their online interactions with patients, including privacy and confidentiality standards.

Further, providers should be aware of the implications of offering online information that might be construed as personal healthcare advice. Doing so could inadvertently trigger a duty to care, and it also may pose patient safety concerns. Because of this, electronic media should include standard disclaimers and disclosure language that explain the nature of the communication (e.g., for informational purposes only) and caution users against interpreting the content as healthcare advice.

Develop Social Media Policies

Developing and implementing social media policies and guidelines are essential steps for managing risks associated with social technology. Include staff members in the initial planning and drafting of policies, and ask them to help identify and assess potential issues.

Key areas to consider when developing organizational social media policies include:

  • The practice’s goals and target audience for social media communication
  • Acceptable and unacceptable use of social media, with explicit examples
  • Who is authorized to develop and post social media content on behalf of the practice
  • The review and approval process for social media content
  • Standard disclaimer and disclosure language
  • The patient consent process for using their words, images, stories, etc., on social media
  • Terms of use for visitors on the practice’s social sites
  • The process for reporting inappropriate use of social media

When developing these policies, keep in mind that social media is dynamic and constantly changing. To address this, create policies that are flexible and adaptable to new or changing social media technologies. Doing so will help avoid the need for constant updating.7

In addition to having policies for social networking websites (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram), healthcare practices also should have written guidelines for the use of email and other types of electronic messaging, such as texting and portal communications.

The American Medical Association’s (AMA’s) Code of Medical Ethics outlines key strategies for managing electronic communication risks, which include:

  • Upholding professional standards of confidentiality
  • Maintaining privacy, security, and integrity of patient information
  • Notifying patients about the limits of electronic communication
  • Obtaining patients’ consent for using electronic communication prior to sending privileged information
  • Presenting medical information in a manner that meets professional standards
  • Being aware of laws that determine when a physician–patient relationship has been established

For more detailed information, see AMA’s Code of Medical Ethics Opinion 2.3.1 — Electronic Communication With Patients.8 Similar to the AMA, dental guidance also recommends that patients should be notified about, and accept the risks of, communicating electronically before such communication is used.9

When developing an electronic communication consent form, consider including the following information:

  • Types of services and information that are suitable for electronic interactions (e.g., nonemergent questions/concerns, prescription refills, appointment requests, etc.)
  • Criteria for establishing a provider–patient relationship
  • Notice of whether the electronic communications originating from the practice are encrypted
  • A statement notifying patients to contact emergency medical services if they are experiencing an urgent problem
  • The general turnaround time for responding to electronic communications
  • The right of the healthcare provider to refuse to make conclusions or decisions regarding treatment based on information obtained electronically

The electronic communication consent form should also include (a) a statement that the patient has read and accepted the policy, and (b) a place for the patient’s signature. The healthcare practice should maintain the signed release in the patient’s record.

Control Quality and Monitor Your Online Presence

Part of maintaining a professional presence online is monitoring the quality of information posted or sent on behalf of your practice. Information should be accurate, current, objective, and nonambiguous. Policies that establish who is responsible for developing content and how content is reviewed and approved will assist with quality control efforts.

Depending on the type of social media being used and/or the control settings, site users might be able to post content or comments to the practice’s social media pages. Understanding the types of media the practice is using and how users can potentially interface with it are important aspects of quality control.

Organizational social media policies should include a mechanism for monitoring online presence and managing negative, offensive, or inaccurate information. To ensure consistency with organizational policy, healthcare leaders or administrators might want to consider assigning one person to review external comments, posts, and responses and handle them accordingly. Keep in mind that comments and responses from staff members must comply with privacy standards.

Educate Healthcare Providers and Staff Members

Educating providers and staff members about how much and what types of personal and professional social media usage and tools are acceptable in the workplace is an essential risk management strategy.

A report from the Pew Research Center showed that the majority of workers use the internet and social media on the job for various personal and work-related activities.10 In healthcare settings, a significant challenge is instilling common sense and discretion regarding personal and professional use of these technologies. Organizational policy should define appropriate use of the internet and PEDs (such as cellphones and tablets). For example, the policy might require that employees turn off their personal phones during office hours and retrieve and respond to their messages during breaks.

Education about the practice’s social media policies as well as discussions about the potential risks and liability issues associated with social media, should be included as part of orientation training and ongoing staff education. Providers and staff members also should be aware of the disciplinary actions for violating the practice’s social media policy.

In Summary

Social media can serve many useful purposes in healthcare by facilitating communication, enhancing information sharing, and promoting services. However, with these opportunities come challenges. Maintaining privacy and confidentiality, establishing appropriate boundaries, developing written policies, monitoring online activities, and educating providers and staff members should remain in the forefront of healthcare practices’ risk management strategies for social media. Further, as these technologies continue to evolve, healthcare practices will need to adapt to ensure a safe and respectful environment for patients, staff, and providers.

Endnotes

  1. Pew Research Center. (2021, April 7). Social media fact sheet. Retrieved from www.pewinternet.org/factsheet/social-media/; Barnhart, B. (2022, March 22). 41 of the most important social media marketing statistics for 2022. Sprout Social. Retrieved from https://sproutsocial.com/insights/social-media-statistics/
  2. Fox, S., & Duggan, M. (2013, January 15). Health online 2013. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from www.pewinternet.org/2013/01/15/health-online-2013/; Brimmer, K. (2012, June 13). PwC report shows importance of social media to healthcare. Healthcare Finance. Retrieved from www.healthcarefinancenews.com/news/pwcreport-shows-importance-social-media-healthcare
  3. ECRI. (2021, January 12). Social media: Organizational risks. Health System Risk Management. Retrieved from www.ecri.org; Parsi, K., & Elster, N. (2015, November). Why can’t we be friends? A case-based analysis of ethical issues with social media in health care. AMA Journal of Ethics, 17(11), 1009-1018. doi:10.1001/journalofethics.2015.17.11.peer1-1511
  4. ECRI. (2021, January 12). Social media: Staff-related risks. Health System Risk Management. Retrieved from www.ecri.org
  5. Clark, C. (2013, April 12). ACP, FSMB issue stern guidance on social media. Retrieved from www.healthleadersmedia.com/strategy/acp-fsmb-issue-stern-guidance-social-media
  6. Farnan, J. M., Sulmasy, L. S., Worster, B. K., Chaudhry, H. J., Rhyne, J. A., & Arora, V. M. (2013). Online medical professionalism: Patient and public relationships: Policy statement from the American College of Physicians and the Federation of State Medical Boards. Annals of Internal Medicine, 158(8), 620–627.
  7. ECRI, Social media: Organizational risks.
  8. American Medical Association. Code of medical ethics opinion 2.3.1: Electronic communication with patients. Retrieved from www.ama-assn.org/delivering-care/ethics/electronic-communication-patients
  9. Kouzoukian, J. G., & Anvar, B. (2019). Protecting electronic communications: Don’t let convenience trump compliance in your interactions with patients. Inside Dentistry, 12(15). Retrieved from www.aegisdentalnetwork.com/id/2019/12/protecting-electronic-communications; New Jersey Dental Association. (2014). Emailing patient information: A resource for dental practices. Retrieved from www.njda.org/docs/librariesprovider35/default-document-library/emailing-patient-records.pdf
  10. Lampe, C., & Ellison, N. B. (2016, June 22). Social media and the workplace. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from www.pewinternet.org/2016/06/22/social-media-and-the-workplace

This document does not constitute legal or medical advice and should not be construed as rules or establishing a standard of care. Because the facts applicable to your situation may vary, or the laws applicable in your jurisdiction may differ, please contact your attorney or other professional advisors if you have any questions related to your legal or medical obligations or rights, state or federal laws, contract interpretation, or other legal questions.

Risk Focus: Patient Communication in Dentistry

What’s the cornerstone of patient-centered care? Great communication. As a dentist, you can see better personal and clinical outcomes by improving your communication with patients and staff. It can also help you avoid (or win) malpractice lawsuits.

In this video, our leading dental risk consultant gives practical tips to improve your patient communication. Quality communication with patients is a vital tool in dentistry that can improve patient comprehension, informed decision-making, and adherence to treatment plans. This video explores patient communication issues that lead to patient injuries and dental malpractice claims. You’ll also learn best practices for establishing quality communication with your patients to avoid these pitfalls.

In need of CDE?

Earn CDE credits by taking our Risk Focus: Patient Communication in Dentistry course. You’ll learn even more about how to manage your risk and it only takes around 30 minutes.

The information contained herein and presented by the speaker is based on sources believed to be accurate at the time they were referenced. The speaker has made a reasonable effort to ensure the accuracy of the information presented; however, no warranty or representation is made as to such accuracy. The speaker is not engaged in rendering legal or other professional services. The information contained herein does not constitute legal or medical advice and should not be construed as rules or establishing a standard of care. Because the facts applicable to your situation may vary, or the laws applicable in your jurisdiction may differ, if legal advice or other expert legal assistance is required, the services of an attorney or other competent legal professional should be sought.

Risk Focus: Patient Selection in Dentistry

Most dentists don’t realize how much control they have when it comes to their patient roster. Learn how to proactively manage your patient list to avoid claims and improve outcomes.

In this video, our leading dental risk consultant will walk you through the importance of patient selection. Poor patient selection can greatly increase your risk for malpractice claims, especially when working with high-risk patients. Your patient selection process can be one of your most effective tools to mitigate claims and improve the success of your office. Learn what pitfalls to avoid and get practical insights with real-time case studies and examples.

In need of CDE?

Earn CDE credits by taking our Risk Focus: Patient Selection in Dentistry course. You’ll learn even more about how to manage your risk and it only takes around 30 minutes.

The information contained herein and presented by the speaker is based on sources believed to be accurate at the time they were referenced. The speaker has made a reasonable effort to ensure the accuracy of the information presented; however, no warranty or representation is made as to such accuracy. The speaker is not engaged in rendering legal or other professional services. The information contained herein does not constitute legal or medical advice and should not be construed as rules or establishing a standard of care. Because the facts applicable to your situation may vary, or the laws applicable in your jurisdiction may differ, if legal advice or other expert legal assistance is required, the services of an attorney or other competent legal professional should be sought.

Risk Focus: Disclosure and Apology in Dentistry

What should you do if there’s an unexpected outcome in your dental practice? Adverse outcomes and errors are a part of dentistry. Learn how to handle difficult situations with honesty and integrity, while protecting yourself and your practice.

This video walks you through how to handle adverse outcomes in your dental practice. Despite your best efforts, unanticipated outcomes and errors can happen. How you handle these situations impacts patient trust and your liability exposure. Learn how the lack of disclosure and apology can affect your practice and risk of a malpractice lawsuit. You’ll also get helpful tips on how to disclose adverse events and real-life case studies to illustrate different disclosure scenarios.

In need of CDE?

Earn CDE credits by taking our Risk Focus: Disclosure and Apology in Dentistry course. You’ll learn even more about how to manage your risk and it only takes around 30 minutes.

The information contained herein and presented by the speaker is based on sources believed to be accurate at the time they were referenced. The speaker has made a reasonable effort to ensure the accuracy of the information presented; however, no warranty or representation is made as to such accuracy. The speaker is not engaged in rendering legal or other professional services. The information contained herein does not constitute legal or medical advice and should not be construed as rules or establishing a standard of care. Because the facts applicable to your situation may vary, or the laws applicable in your jurisdiction may differ, if legal advice or other expert legal assistance is required, the services of an attorney or other competent legal professional should be sought.

Risk Focus: Jousting in Dentistry

Jousting — making critical comments about, or second-guessing, the care of another dentist — is a significant problem in dentistry. Jousting most often occurs in subsequent dentist’s treatment or during the process of a second opinion. This video defines jousting and examines the role and impact of jousting on malpractice allegations and claims. Watch to learn how you can help end the jousting cycle in dentistry.

In this video, our leading dental risk consultant teaches you how to navigate jousting—a problematic trend in dentistry. Jousting is when a dentist gets “thrown under the bus” by another dentist who critiques or questions their care. This can lead to loss of business and costly malpractice claims. Watch to learn how to handle and avoid jousting.

In need of CDE?

Earn CDE credits by taking our Risk Focus: Jousting in Dentistry course. You’ll learn even more about how to manage your risk and it only takes around 30 minutes.

The information contained herein and presented by the speaker is based on sources believed to be accurate at the time they were referenced. The speaker has made a reasonable effort to ensure the accuracy of the information presented; however, no warranty or representation is made as to such accuracy. The speaker is not engaged in rendering legal or other professional services. The information contained herein does not constitute legal or medical advice and should not be construed as rules or establishing a standard of care. Because the facts applicable to your situation may vary, or the laws applicable in your jurisdiction may differ, if legal advice or other expert legal assistance is required, the services of an attorney or other competent legal professional should be sought.

Risk Article

The Rise of Teledentistry

Marcy A. Metzgar

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic may have halted many things, but not teledentistry . . . it did just the opposite. Teledentistry has enabled many dentists not only to provide patient care while mitigating COVID-19 transmission but also more readily consult with colleagues and specialty practices to ensure optimal patient outcomes.1

In April 2020, the American Dental Association’s Health Policy Institute released a report stating that 1 in 4 dentists nationally (many of whom were new to teledentistry) were using teledentistry to perform limited evaluations.2 However, teledentistry has traditionally extended the reach of dental care for more than a decade by using an allied team member, such as a dental hygienist or expanded-function dental assistant.3

Definition

Teledentistry, which is the use of health information and communications technology to deliver oral care, consultations, and education, includes the remote provision of dental treatment (screening, diagnosis, consultation, and treatment planning) or advice using encrypted patient electronic data via the use of electronic health records, videoconferencing, and/or intraoral photographs and radiographic images.4

Teledentistry allows for adaptability as it can occur in real-time using synchronous communication methods or it can be asynchronous, meaning there is no real-time interaction between the provider and patient so information is stored and forwarded.5 Additionally, rapidly developing information and communication technologies for teledentistry have increasingly shown improvements in cost effectiveness, accuracy, and efficiency.6

Benefits and Risks

Increasing access to care, providing safeguards to mitigate risk, demonstrating an innovative ability to deliver care, and creating convenience for patients are some of the benefits of teledentistry. However, dentists may risk professional liability claims and licensing board actions when using teledentistry. To manage these potential risks, dentists should comply with state laws and regulations related to teledentistry and always provide a standard of care that aligns with their state’s standards of practice.

Security Requirements

In addition to benefits and risks associated with teledentistry, dentists also have the responsibility to ensure the confidentiality and integrity of information obtained and exchanged. Consulting security experts when setting up these systems to exchange information may be very helpful.

Dentists also should be aware that systems and processes being used to transmit images and data need to meet security requirements under the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act of 2009 as well as any state-specific requirements as a general rule. However, there is an exception to HIPAA security requirements during the COVID-19 public health emergency.

COVID-19 Waivers

Effective March 17, 2020, the Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights exercised enforcement discretion (authorized by Section 1135 of the Social Security Act) to allow the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) to waive certain requirements during national emergencies.

CMS has decided to waive — through the use of 1135 Waivers (“Waivers”) — potential penalties for violations of the HIPAA privacy, security, and breach notification regulations for providers and their business associates serving patients through everyday communications technologies. Under the Waivers, providers who want to use audio or video communication technology to provide telehealth to patients during the emergency period may use any nonpublic-facing remote communication product to communicate with patients. The Waivers temporarily relax the strict rules for technological security that – under the HIPAA security rule – would otherwise limit providers to the use of technologies with proven security controls.7 Therefore, dentists may use applications such as Apple FaceTime, Facebook Messenger, and Zoom during this time period.8

Using Teledentistry in Practice

When using teledentistry in their practices, dentists are responsible for:

  • Developing criteria to conduct teledentistry.
  • Creating and having teledentistry policies and procedures in place.
  • Evaluating patients’ ability to participate in teledentistry.
  • Obtaining patients’ informed consent to participate in teledentistry.
  • Ensuring HIPAA requirements are met while conducting teledentistry; i.e., maintaining the privacy and security of patient information (see the COVID-19 Waivers exception on Page 2).
  • Documenting all teledentistry services in the patient’s dental record. (If images are being sent for a second opinion, the referring dentist should note that in the record. The returned opinion also should be documented in the record as well as how it factored into any treatment decision.)
  • Educating staff on how to use related technologies and transmit files securely. All staff education and training should be documented in employee files.
  • Properly documenting images to ensure they are linked to the correct patient. Documentation includes patient name, identification numbers, date and time of the examination, name of facility, type of examination, anatomic orientation, and amount and method of data compression.
  • Retaining images to meet state or local requirements.
  • Maintaining patients’ rights by actively involving them in treatment decisions and services that are provided in accordance with applicable laws and regulations related to the privacy and security of protected health information (PHI).9

Tips for Starting a Teledentistry Program

For any dentists interested in starting teledentistry in their practices, here is some helpful advice:

  • Read your State Dental Practice Act to determine what is permitted. If unclear, contact the State Dental Board office or Dental Association office.
  • Check with your professional liability carrier to determine whether you are covered for any teledentistry or telehealth practice.
  • Find a HIPAA-compliant solution for either a store-and-forward method, synchronous method, or both methods (see COVID-19 Waivers exception on Page 2).
  • Educate office staff on creating a workflow for implementation.
  • Inform current patients of the availability of teledentistry in your practice, and educate them about when teledentistry is appropriate and when in-person care is required.10

In Summary

To successfully implement and maintain teledentistry, dentists should understand professional guidelines and state and federal governmental regulations, confirm that they have the necessary liability and licensure protection, adhere to the state’s standard of care, and ensure the secure exchange of information from their systems.

As with regular dental care, staying focused on safe and best practices will help to minimize the occurrence of adverse events when using teledentistry in the dental practice. For more information, see the American Dental Association’s Policy on Teledentistry.

Endnotes

1 National Society of Dental Practitioners, Inc. (2020). Teledentistry: Risk management considerations for dentists. Risk Management Newsletter, 35(1). Retrieved from www.aawd.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/TeledentistryManagementforDentists.pdf

2 Suter, N. (2020, September). Teledentistry applications for mitigating risk and balancing the clinical schedule. Journal of Public Health Dentistry, 80 Suppl 2:S126-S131. Doi: 10.1111/jphd.12421. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33306848/

3 Ibid

4 National Society of Dental Practitioners, Inc., Teledentistry.

5 Ibid.

6 Irving, M., Stewart, R., Spallek, H., & Blinkhorn, A. (2018). Using teledentistry in clinical practice as an enabler to improve access to clinical care: A qualitative, systematic review. Journal of Telemedicine and Telecare, 24(3), 129-146. doi: 10.1177/1357633X16686776. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1357633X16686776

7 National Association of Community Health Centers. (2020, March 19). Memorandum. Retrieved from www.nachc.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/20200319-CMS-1135-Waivers.pdf

8 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2021, January 20). Notification of enforcement discretion for telehealth remote communications during the COVID-19 nationwide public health emergency. Retrieved from www.hhs.gov/hipaa/for-professionals/special-topics/emergency-preparedness/notification-enforcement-discretion-telehealth/index.html?language=en

9 National Society of Dental Practitioners, Inc., Teledentistry.

10 American Teledentistry Association. (n.d.). Startup guide for implementation of teledentistry in your practice. Retrieved from www.americanteledentistry.org/

This document does not constitute legal or medical advice and should not be construed as rules or establishing a standard of care. Because the facts applicable to your situation may vary, or the laws applicable in your jurisdiction may differ, please contact your attorney or other professional advisors if you have any questions related to your legal or medical obligations or rights, state or federal laws, contract interpretation, or other legal questions.

Risk Focus: Informed Consent in Dentistry

Informed consent in dentistry is a foundation of patient engagement and patient-centered care. True informed consent is not merely a signed form; rather, it is a process of educating a patient about treatment options and potential outcomes.

This video examines the importance of informed consent in dentistry and how lack of an appropriate informed consent process can lead to increased frequency and severity of malpractice claims. The essential elements of informed consent are discussed, as well as the role of dentists in this process. The provision of an informed consent checklist and review of case scenarios involving lack of or ineffective informed consent also are included in this video.

In need of CDE?

Earn CDE credits by taking our Risk Focus: Informed Consent in Dentistry course. You’ll learn even more about how to manage your risk and it only takes around 30 minutes.

The information contained herein and presented by the speaker is based on sources believed to be accurate at the time they were referenced. The speaker has made a reasonable effort to ensure the accuracy of the information presented; however, no warranty or representation is made as to such accuracy. The speaker is not engaged in rendering legal or other professional services. The information contained herein does not constitute legal or medical advice and should not be construed as rules or establishing a standard of care. Because the facts applicable to your situation may vary, or the laws applicable in your jurisdiction may differ, if legal advice or other expert legal assistance is required, the services of an attorney or other competent legal professional should be sought.

Risk Tip

Managing Negative Online Reviews From Patients

The internet and social media have fundamentally changed the ways in which healthcare consumers gather and exchange information. More and more, patients are looking online to address their healthcare needs and to comment about their experiences.

A survey of more than 2,500 patients showed that 82 percent of participants use online reviews to evaluate doctors, 72 percent use online reviews to find a new doctor, and 19 percent use online reviews to validate their provider choices.1

These numbers underscore the significance of online reviews — both positive and negative — to healthcare organizations’ and practitioners’ reputations and viability.

For healthcare providers, the need to manage their online reputations is becoming more imperative as review sites increase in popularity. Although negative online reviews can present challenges, providers can implement a number of risk management strategies to address this issue.2

  1. As part of your organization’s communication and social media policies, develop a strategy for interacting with patients online, including responding to both positive and negative online reviews.

  2. Designate an appropriate individual to monitor the organization’s online presence as well as online reviews and comments about individual providers.

  3. Explore the possibility of using online alerts and other technology solutions to manage the organization’s and providers’ online reputations.

  4. Develop scripted language to respond to negative online reviews. The language should emphasize the organization’s commitment to high-quality patient care and satisfaction and should encourage individuals who have concerns to contact the office directly.

  5. Be aware of state and federal privacy regulations, and ensure that anyone responding to online patient reviews understands the obligation to protect patient privacy and confidentiality.

  6. In each circumstance, consider the best approach for handling the online review. Options might include (a) not responding at all, (b) responding online in a professional manner, or (c) contacting a known patient directly to address his/her concerns.

  7. Avoid responses to negative reviews that sound defensive, make excuses, or criticize the patient in any way. Additionally, avoid engaging in online arguments or behavior that might be considered threatening or unprofessional.

  8. Understand and reinforce the importance of treating all patients with courtesy and respect and exhibiting professionalism in both in-person and online interactions.

  9. Consider online reviews a learning opportunity for both providers and staff. Review both positive and negative reviews and discuss how the organization can build on quality improvement processes.

  10. Encourage trusted, satisfied patients to post online reviews. Reviews that discuss positive experiences with the organization and its providers will help counteract negative reviews.

  11. Devise a plan for how your organization can use social media to build a positive online presence and share its mission. Doing so can help provide balance for potential negative feedback.

  12. Consult legal counsel or consider contacting a review site’s webmaster if a patient posts information that is false or defamatory.

Endnotes

1Health, S. (2018, April 16). How do patients use online provider reviews for care decisions? PatientEngagementHIT.com. Retrieved from https://patientengagementhit.com/news/how-do-patients-use-online- provider-reviews-for-care-decisions

2Adler, E. L. (2016, September 21). How not to respond to bad patient reviews online. Physicians Practice. Retrieved from https://www.physicianspractice.com/marketing/how-not-respond-bad-patient-reviews-online; Chauhan, M. K. (2016, December 18). Managing patient online reviews can make a difference. Physicians Practice. Retrieved from https://www.physicianspractice.com/blog/managing-patient-online-reviews-can-make-difference; Cryts, A. (2016, December 1). Docs, ignore millennials? online reviews at your peril. FierceHealthcare. Retrieved from https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/practices/docs-ignore-millennials-online-reviews-at-your-peril; Kropf, S. (2015, May 8). Responding to negative online patient reviews: 7 tips. Physicians Practice. Retrieved from https://www.physicianspractice.com/blog/responding-negative-online-patient-reviews-7-tips; Segel, R. (2017, January 4). Dissed by unhappy patients? Here?s what to do. MedPage Today. Retrieved from https://www.medpagetoday.com/PracticeManagement/PracticeManagement/62349; Weber, S. (2015, December 14). How to: Deal with negative online reviews. Physicians Practice. Retrieved from https://www.physicianspractice.com/marketing/how-to-deal-with-negative-online-reviews

This document does not constitute legal or medical advice and should not be construed as rules or establishing a standard of care. Because the facts applicable to your situation may vary, or the laws applicable in your jurisdiction may differ, please contact your attorney or other professional advisors if you have any questions related to your legal or medical obligations or rights, state or federal laws, contract interpretation, or other legal questions.

Legal Case

How Ignoring a Patient’s Medical History can Lead to a Malpractice Lawsuit: Antibiotic Prophylaxis for Dental Prophylaxis

BACKGROUND FACTS
A 67-year-old woman presented to a new general dentist, Dr. A, for a check-up and a cleaning, having recently retired to the community where the dentist practiced. She was presented with traditional “welcome” documents, which she completed. Among the papers was a medical history form with yes or no checkboxes for several conditions. She checked yes for Type II diabetes, and next to heart disease, she checked yes and wrote in “IE”.

After she was seated in the dental chair, a dental hygienist introduced herself, silently reviewed the completed paperwork, took a full series of radiographs, did periodontal probing, and performed supra- and sub-gingival prophylaxis using a Cavitron and hand scalers. Then, Dr. A joined them in the treatment room, engaged in small talk, and did a tooth-by-tooth caries check, finding nothing warranting treatment. Dr. A explained to his new patient that because of her gingival inflammation and propensity to develop calculus she should be placed on a 3-month recall regimen, to which the patient agreed.

Four or five days later, the patient began to feel ill, exhibiting fever, chills and fatigue. She presented to a free-standing medical clinic, where a physician reviewed her medical history and her recent activities. She discussed her diabetes and her history of IE, infective endocarditis, many years ago, as well as her recent dental appointment. When she responded to the doctor’s question as to whether she had been given antibiotics in association with the dental treatment, she said that she had not; she was referred to the local hospital to be seen by a cardiologist.

After a work-up, it was determined that she had endocarditis, so she was admitted to the hospital for intravenous antibiotics; blood cultures confirmed the bacterial source to be an organism often found in
the mouth. She remained in the hospital until her symptoms resolved nearly a week later and several echocardiograms were determined to be within normal limits. As she would need to continue IV antibiotics for a month or more, a PICC line (peripherally inserted central catheter) was placed so she could receive them at home. She continued to do well, with the PICC line removed after six weeks. While she steadily improved, she experienced shortness of breath on a regular basis with even minimal exercise, which became her baseline going forward, although she functioned well in day-to-day activities.

LEGAL STATUS
The patient retained an attorney to pursue an action against Dr. A and his dental hygienist. The attorney obtained the dental records and immediately noticed that the patient had disclosed her history of infective endocarditis (“IE”), but it was not recognized and not acted upon as part of treatment.

The dentist notified his malpractice insurance carrier upon receiving a request for records, which initiated pre-suit discussions between the carrier and the attorney, reaching a settlement agreement. Because the patient did reasonably well and did not require surgical intervention, the settlement value was not much greater than what the defense litigation costs and expenses were anticipated to be if the situation moved into the courts. Additionally, confidentiality and protection from social media postings could be included in the agreement, whereas that would not be so if the case ended up with a trial verdict against the dentist and/or hygienist.

TAKE AWAYS
The prescribing of antibiotic prophylaxis to prevent infective endocarditis is a topic that is not often discussed. Infective endocarditis, also called bacterial endocarditis, is an infection caused by bacteria that enter the bloodstream and settle in the heart lining, a heart valve or a blood vessel. It can be caused by any number of sources, among them certain invasive dental procedures including subgingival scaling, although routine home oral hygiene can also be the cause in susceptible patients.

For more than a half-century, the American Heart Association (AHA) has been issuing guidelines on the use of prophylactic antibiotics in association with invasive dental procedures. Over the years, the guidelines have changed often and significantly, with regard to which underlying medical conditions warrant such prophylaxis, the antibiotics recommended, the regimen for prescribing the antibiotics, i.e. pre-treatment, pre- and post-treatment, the number of doses, dose strength, etc. and approaches to handling situations when susceptible patients are already on a course of antibiotics prior to the invasive dental treatment. It is not the purpose here to dictate the judgment of a dentist in a given situation, but, as a practice risk management consideration, a current knowledge of these factors is valuable, and consultation with a patient?s cardiologist or internist is an advisable action.

The scenario here of a dental hygienist being the first practitioner to become involved is not uncommon.
All practitioners involved in patient care should regularly, before treatment starts, review patients? medical histories, verbally clarify and discuss with patients their positive responses and assure that there are no other conditions which were not reported, confirm the meaning of abbreviations which may be used by patients (even if the practitioner might find it embarrassing to ask), and be willing to research the significance of existing medical conditions and/or ask the assistance of others with greater knowledge on the subject. Here, for whatever reasons, the hygienist proceeded with care without investigating the patient?s reported history, and the dentist followed suit.

In a number of jurisdictions, and under certain circumstances, both a dentist and the hygienist working with that dentist can be held liable for the negligence of the hygienist (“vicarious liability”). It is an important task for a dentist to periodically assure that their malpractice policy will provide coverage to the dentist for the negligence of hygienists, assistants and other office staff members, even if those people have their own policies.

A pre-suit settlement was the best outcome for this case. Here, the defense would likely have included the causation issue, meaning that the IE could have arisen from the patient’s home care, or lack, rather than from the dental procedures. But the liability concerns were significant, and a jury would have been presented an argument by the plaintiff that her oral hygiene was a constant for years, and it would have to have been mere coincidence for IE to have developed just days after her dental treatment. This settlement, like all others, involved input from experts and the insured dentist, working in conjunction with the carrier and attorneys.

Finally, regarding a related matter, it is an ongoing question in the dental community whether an antibiotic prophylaxis regimen exists for orthopedic patients who have had joint replacements or other implanted devices. While this article does not speak to what may or may not be appropriate in specific circumstances, the AHA recommendations are cardiac- and cardiovascular-related only. Whether an orthopedic surgeon may suggest antibiotic prophylaxis in association with invasive dental procedures, and what such a regimen may look like, is likely specific to the situation and best determined in consultation with the orthopedist or other applicable practitioner.

The opinions expressed through this post are the opinions of the individual authors and may not reflect the opinions of MedPro Group or any of its individual employees. This document should not be construed as medical or legal advice. Because the facts applicable to your situation may vary, or the laws applicable in your jurisdiction may differ, please contact your attorney or other professional advisors if you have any questions related to your legal or medical obligations or rights, state or federal laws, contract interpretation, or other legal questions.

Legal Case

The Injuries That Weren’t

Rawle & Henderson LLP, Marc R. Leffler, Esq., Partner,  William S. Spiegel, Esq., Partner

In order to prove a case in dental malpractice, a plaintiff must demonstrate that there was negligence on the part of the dentist which directly caused, or was at least a substantial factor in causing, an injury or injuries. If any of those components is missing, the claim cannot stand; in other words, if there is no improper treatment, or if there are no demonstrable injuries, or if there is no connection between the treatment and the injuries, the dentist will be successful in defense.

Facts
A 45-year-old woman had been having pain associated with her lower right third molar (#32) for nearly a week; she had previously experienced the same problem over the years, but the pain resolved after a few days after an uptick in her oral hygiene. But this time was different. So, she went to her dentist, Dr. A, to complain, leading to a panoramic radiograph which showed the tooth to be partially impacted with a distal bony defect present on tooth #31, which was confirmed on clinical examination. Dr. A believed that extraction was the best treatment, given the history and the patient’s age; the patient was so uncomfortable that she was happy to hear that proposed solution.

Dr. A had spent several years working in hospitals, so he was well experienced with extractions of this type, and extractions became a regular part of his private practice. What was clear radiographically was the proximity of the root apices to the inferior alveolar canal, so the dentist carefully explained the potential for temporary, or even permanent, loss or alteration of feeling to the areas innervated by the inferior alveolar nerve. The patient was then presented with a detailed informed consent form, which she signed and dated before any aspect of treatment began. Later on, the patient acknowledged having been fully advised of all risks associated with the procedure, as well as viable options, so her initial case claim of lack of informed consent was dismissed by the court early on.

Under local anesthesia, tooth #32 was surgically extracted, seemingly without complication. During the 20-minute procedure, a bite block was placed on the contralateral occlusal surfaces to keep the masticatory muscles comfortable and to reduce the chance of TMJ injury. A silk suture was placed, post-extraction instructions were provided (including that she should refrain from smoking), and a prescription for analgesics was given.

On the second post-operative day, the patient experienced an increase in pain, so she called the dentist’s office; she was asked to come in to be checked, and she did so that afternoon. When Dr. A checked the area, he found a dry socket. So, he asked the patient whether she had been smoking, and she admitted to having done so. The dentist gently debrided the socket, packed the area with dry socket dressing, reiterated the warning against smoking, and told the patient that she should return for dressing changes at least every other day. The patient made no other complaints related to her mouth at that visit.

The patient returned quite often for dressing changes, still making no other complaints; her suture was removed one week after the extraction. During the first month, she presented to the office 12 times for dressing changes. At one of those visits, the dentist took an x-ray, which showed a clean site. At 35 days following the extraction, the patient complained, for the first time, that her lower right lip and chin were numb; she stated that the numbness had been that way since the day of extraction. When asked why she had not said anything about that before, she responded that the pain from the dry socket had been so bad that she simply complained of the most significant thing. Dr. A gently used a sharp explorer to try to determine whether there was any painful response, but the patient stated that she felt nothing on her lower right lip and chin areas when poked with the explorer. The dentist wanted to follow that situation, so he had the patient return for continuing dry socket dressing changes, and after that resolved, once a month. He told the patient that, if she did not have a return of feeling by 6 months after the extraction, she would be referred to an oral surgeon.

At nearly 3 months post-op, she made a new complaint: she was experiencing left side TMJ pain (which she attributed to the bite block used at surgery) which was ongoing since the time of the extraction, and which was making it difficult for her to chew. The dentist thought that it was best that she be sent to an oral surgeon at this point, to address the complaints of both numbness and joint pain. The patient became upset that she was being referred elsewhere, asking why Dr. A would do surgery if he was not able to handle post-surgery problems on his own. The dentist explained that he felt comfortable managing post-surgery problems, but when two arose at once, it would be better to have a specialist involved.

The patient never returned to Dr. A, and she ignored voicemails from his office asking whether she had gone to see an oral surgeon.

Legal Stance
The patient became a plaintiff when the attorney she retained filed a dental malpractice action on her behalf: the suit alleged an improperly performed extraction during which the inferior alveolar nerve was not protected, improper use of a bite block, and the failure to obtain informed consent. These issues of malpractice were claimed to have caused permanent injury to the right inferior alveolar nerve (IAN) and damage to the left TMJ complex. (As is noted above, the informed consent claim dropped out of the case.)

Issues Raised
As we commonly see in cases claiming paresthesia due to extractions, the method of extraction is of paramount importance because a properly performed extraction which led to nerve injury is normally not an adequate foundation for a successful dental malpractice case. A less common claim was raised here, that being that it was improper to place a bite block during the extraction, so as to cause a joint injury.

Discovery
In the state where this suit was brought, there is broad discovery permitted by the courts, meaning that attorneys for both the plaintiff and the defendant dentist are allowed to delve into any issue(s) that might at least reasonably lead to relevant evidence. What this practically results in are the (1) depositions of the plaintiff and defendant, as well as of key non-expert witnesses who can likely shed light on important issues of the case; (2) a physical examination of the plaintiff by a doctor of defense counsel’s choosing, which is limited to the damages claims; and (3) access to a generally wide array of the plaintiff’s dental and medical records, so long as defense counsel can demonstrate to the court that the records sought are not merely for a fishing expedition, but rather for an exploration of what the plaintiff might have reported — or not reported — to her seemingly unrelated medical providers.

Here, the plaintiff’s deposition was not overly helpful in areas beyond the usual inquiry into the plaintiff’s background and her version of the treatment timeline, including interactions with the defendant and others.

However, we had an oral surgeon who was familiar with issues relating to the TMJ and to nerve injuries examine the plaintiff. When challenged with various stimuli to the areas innervated by the IAN, she claimed that she could not feel the right side, but she could feel the left side; of course, this is subjective, so patient truthfulness is an important component of this type of examination (which is why we sometimes forego such examinations in claimed nerve injury cases, based upon how we view the plaintiff’s veracity). Regarding the claim of left-sided TMJ pain, she told our examining oral surgeon, and acted as such when asked to perform opening and lateral movements, that she could only open vertically to 25 mm when asked how wide she could open, but when the oral surgeon asked her (off-the-cuff, so to speak) to open so that he could view the back of the extraction site with a mouth mirror, she opened 45 mm without even a hint of discomfort. More importantly, regarding the left-sided TMJ pain, she claimed to be unable to move laterally, at all, to the left, but freely moved toward the right without any restriction. The written report of this examination was shared with counsel for the plaintiff, as is required.

What the plaintiff did not know is that, due to the functions and pulls of the lateral pterygoid muscles, patients are able to freely move toward the injured side, and prevented from moving to the opposite direction of injured TMJs. Without anyone intentionally setting it, the plaintiff fell into an anatomic trap, proving her to be untruthful regarding her TMJ claim, which immediately raised our awareness that, perhaps, she was also being untruthful about the nerve injury claim.

The plaintiff was a patient who saw doctors quite frequently, so the volume of medical records to be reviewed was enormous. However, we recognized that they could contain very valuable information. Roughly 18 months after the extraction at issue, the plaintiff saw her primary physician for a routine physical and blood studies: therein, her liver function tests were grossly abnormal, so her physician referred her to a hematologist for a work-up, and she went.

Luckily for us, and in conformity with good medical care, the hematologist obtained a complete medical history and conducted a thorough physical exam. In the history, within the section entitled “neurological”, the hematologist noted the history from the plaintiff, which included her statement of “no areas of numbness or altered sensation.” As helpful as that, alone, would have been for our case, during the physical exam, the hematologist conducted a neurological exam, in which it was noted “CNs (cranial nerves) II-XII intact.” Given that the IAN is within the third division of CN V, we knew, from a totally unrelated but authoritative source, that no nerve was injured, at least as of then.

Subsequently, and pursuant to a HIPAA authorization, we spoke with the hematologist. We explained the plaintiff’s claim in the suit and asked whether the notes of the history and physical were accurate. The hematologist responded to the effect of, “I never enter a patient chart note that is not complete and accurate. I see almost every patient with either a medical student or resident also present, so complete history taking, thorough examinations, and accurate chart entries are absolutes.” We made plans to have the hematologist testify at trial, if needed.

Trial
In the lead-up to trial, we explained to the plaintiff’s attorney that we strongly believed that the claimed injuries did not exist. The attorney did not accept our assessment, maintained a settlement demand value which we viewed as exorbitant, and wished to proceed to trial.

At trial, our client testified regarding his professional credentials, including his practice background, and the facts specific to this plaintiff. A key area of questioning against him, which was effective, focused on the concepts that oral surgeons are specifically trained to remove impacted teeth. As compared with general dentists such as he was, they are more familiar with handling complications (which the dentist clearly agreed with, as he had ultimately referred the plaintiff to an oral surgeon after two problems emerged), and despite his experience doing oral surgery, an oral surgeon with more experience might have taken different approaches and precautions to decrease the likelihood of complications. In all candor, plaintiff’s counsel seemed to have impressed the jury on the negligence aspect of the claim.

However, things turned around starkly during the cross-examination of the plaintiff’s expert witness. That expert acknowledged the anatomic and physiologic incongruities associated with the plaintiff’s claimed limitations and abilities relating to her TMJ and its muscular attachments, and essentially admitted that the plaintiff could not have been truthful when reporting her TMJ symptoms. It became even worse for the plaintiff when the expert was confronted with the hematologist’s records, which he had never previously reviewed, and was forced to admit that this unbiased, unrelated practitioner had essentially debunked the plaintiff’s claimed permanent nerve injury, based upon a history from the plaintiff and an examination which took place well after the subject extraction.

The jury quickly returned a verdict in favor of the dentist. One of the jurors, who was interviewed after, said that they completely disbelieved everything about the plaintiff’s claim once her own expert was painted into a corner.

Takeaways
For a plaintiff to win a dental malpractice case, every element of the claim must be met. So, an injury caused by proper treatment will lead to results in favor of the dentist. Of course, the true facts may not always appear from the start, so a deep dive into every aspect of litigation investigation must be undertaken in all cases, not only by the attorneys, but by the expert witnesses as well, because they are the witnesses who are usually the most critical to juries.

Very important from a risk management standpoint is the concept to always practice within your own abilities. Especially in office settings when young employee dentists are pushed to produce, but also in situations where such pressures are not externally placed, we often see litigation arising after dentists perform procedures for which they are not adequately trained, for which they have limited experience, or which they are trying to do as “a favor.”

The opinions expressed through this post are the opinions of the individual authors and may not reflect the opinions of MedPro Group or any of its individual employees. This document should not be construed as medical or legal advice. Because the facts applicable to your situation may vary, or the laws applicable in your jurisdiction may differ, please contact your attorney or other professional advisors if you have any questions related to your legal or medical obligations or rights, state or federal laws, contract interpretation, or other legal questions.