How to Avoid Social Media Landmines as an Occupational Therapist
Understanding the Climate: Current Conditions Create a Tough Terrain
Social media dominates the digital landscape and seems to provide endless opportunities to interact with family, friends, colleagues and even strangers in interesting and meaningful ways – but there exist numerous challenges for occupational therapists, who must now navigate a sphere where personal and professional goals don’t always match, and one misstep could result in massive professional consequences.
Personal branding. Networking. Engagement. Marketing. ROI. Freedom of speech. These are a few of the buzzwords surrounding social media.
But for occupational therapists – and many other medical practitioners – there are a few more words to consider, as well: Privacy and confidentiality, codes of ethics, patient-practitioner relations, backlash, blurred lines, lawsuits and HIPAA.
A decade ago, a survey of occupational therapists revealed that nearly all OTs used social media, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram, but only a quarter of all OTs used it in their clinical practice.
There isn’t a lot of great data to show the current percentages, but the social media world has exploded since the advent of handheld technologies such as smart phones and tablets. It almost impossible to look anywhere online, in person, on the radio or on television where one or more platforms aren’t being promoted as a source of connection and information for individuals and businesses. Ease of access and widespread buy-in drive common practice.
“I’ll admit it: during the first five years of my career, I was extremely opposed to using social media,” writes Meredith Castin, the founder of The Non-Clinical PT and co-founder of NewGradPhysicalTherapy. “I felt uncomfortable when patients asked to friend me on Facebook, and I got nervous about employers checking in on my personal life.”
Castin created a business helping PTs, OTs and STs use their degrees in non-clinical ways, but believes that “social media provides excellent opportunities to connect with others and build our brands as clinicians, employers, and entrepreneurs.”
Knowing how to properly evaluate and understand the dynamics of personal and professional social media use is the key to success for practicing clinicians, who are held to stricter legal and ethical obligations than the rest of the population. This process involves education, reflection and discipline on the part of OTs who wish to maximize their social media enjoyment, avoid its pitfalls and leverage its potential.
Navigating the Landscape: Creating a Manageable Map
Through casual practice, people generally understand how the most popular social media platforms work. This guide doesn’t focus on theory, but on common issues and practical steps clinical occupational therapists may take to reduce risks. In many cases, the information and suggestions may apply to other medical practitioners, as well.
OTs should also consider other factors that impact their specific needs. While professional regulatory and ethical guidelines are created on the macro-level and apply to all OTs, there are also individual influences such as company policies, entrepreneurship, personal beliefs and goals, geography, and cultural environment.
#1: Engagement – Recognizing Solid Ground vs. Quicksand
The American Medical Association recognizes that the Internet creates opportunities “to share information quickly, to create a professional presence, to build collegiality and camaraderie, and to disseminate health messages” on a mass level. It also maintains that clinicians are individually responsible for their actions and the consequences those actions may have on the medical community.
Practitioners are advised to clearly separate personal and professional engagement as a primary means of safeguarding their obligation to professional standards – but they are not excused from professional standards in their personal conduct.
Erring on the side of caution is the best advice. Choosing to limit personal freedom in favor of professional propriety protects OTs and their communities. According to the American Occupational Therapy Association, young professionals and students are especially vulnerable to the irreparable damage that may be caused by a lack of prudence. And once something is released into the digital world, the person who shared it loses control of the message: it may be distorted, re-shared and permanent.
LinkedIn may be the easiest social media platform to avoid controversy, since its purpose is clearly professional. Most people who want to develop business relationships understand that thoughtfulness and tact are essential elements of commercial endeavors.
Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are professional tools; however, they are also distinctly personal spheres where visual and verbal forms of expression that create distinctly powerful impressions, for better or for worse.
Practical Tips for Mutually Beneficial Engagement:
- Pause before posting.
- Maintain high privacy settings that limit how the others can view, share and respond.
- Understand that each social media platform operates differently and choose the best platform for your clear purpose.
- Set clear boundaries and guidelines for accepting friends, connections and followers, especially as it pertains to patients, colleagues and people you don’t know.