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By: Kevin Asp on July 8th, 2016

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HIPAA and Social Media: A Discussion With Former AAST President Robert Turner

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Past president and 38th annual meeting speaker Robert Turner shares his thoughts on HIPAA and social media 

Q: What did the role of a sleep technologist from the past look like?

Over the years, a lot of things have shifted and changed.  There were periods of time when home sleep testing emerged and everybody thought it was going to be the end of sleep centers.  And the technology wasn’t as such as it is utilized now.  Now there are lots of people doing home sleep testing, but it hasn’t actually had as big of a negative impact as expected and of course it changes the acuity of who we see in the sleep centers.

I think because of the degree of knowledge and understanding about sleep disorders that technologists have they will continue to have this amazing role that they will continue to fill.  And it might be moving away from exclusively the role of making sure that the machine works properly and you collect the data.  We are now moving into an exciting phase where technologists are more involved with the patients, more involved with their care, and continue to be the technical resource for all of the different types of things we are involved in like telemedicine  or helping people understand how to use equipment, making sure that sleep studies are run properly, or helping people use their CPAP mask and a variety of different devices.  There will be more.

Q: What’s the biggest challenge that comes with the evolving role of a sleep technologist?

Well the anxiety is about how do we grapple with new technology.  If you came into sleep technology because of your love for technology, then there is a role for you to become a technical expert.  If what brought you into sleep was the love of working with patients, then there is a role for you working with the patients and educating them.  If what you’re interested in now is helping to manage people and to manage processes then look at the management aspect of being in a sleep center.  There is a broad array of possibilities out there.  I personally went back to school and got a degree in counseling, so I can do cognitive behavioral therapy with some degree of recognition.

Q: Social media and HIPAA policy, we’re starting to talk about it so much, especially among sleep professionals.  Is this surprising?

I think the problem with social media it that we tend to view it as “public” - as it is.  We think we are talking to our friends, and not realizing that this is a way that it can be documented that you violated HIPAA.  So if you have to go into court and somebody pulls up a most recent post about somebody or a long time ago post, how are you going to respond to that?  It’s hard to say oh, somebody misunderstood me when they have it in black and white.  So I think a lot of people misunderstand what is out there.  They of course never would sit down and have a chat with their coworkers about a patient in a theatre, in front of a bunch of people,  But that is essentially what they are doing on social media.  I think a lot of it is making people understand this issue.  I think it won’t take more than one or two cases where somebody is brought in for a HIPAA violation and gets fined or goes to jail.  So we need to rethink how we use social media.

Q: Are you seeing more and more instances of HIPAA violations?

There might be a rise in people getting written up and reported (for HIPAA violations) but I don’t there there is a rise in actual instances.  I’ve been in the medical industry for decades and people talk about stuff inappropriately.  It’s just that now the avenues for that kind of stuff to go on are actually expanded.

Q: If someone came up to you after one of your lectures on HIPAA and asked, “Well then, should I be watching my every move on social media?”  what would you say to them?  How comfortable should we be as medical professionals?

I think as a medical professional, the big takeaway is to be cautious about talking anything about work on social media.  If you have a closed group, how really closed is that group?  You’ll never know.  So you have to be careful even there.  And can your employer gain access to that post?  What if the employer says "hey, we really can’t afford to have this kind of thing going on". There are many cases in which people are terminated because of what they posted on social media.

It’s always surprising, not only the HIPAA kinds of things put on social media, but also when people say things like "I didn’t sleep at all last night, I hope I can be awake for my shift".  Or post a status about "I’m not really sick, but I’m not coming in because I said I was sick".  So yeah, people make all kinds of stupid mistakes like that.  

Sleep technologists - you need to behave professionally on social media!

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