Social Media Advice for Healthcare Professionals and their Patients

Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat are everywhere…but you might want to keep them out of work

Looking back, it shouldn’t have been too hard to foresee the ubiquity of social media. Once believed to be “just for college students,” now everyone from your little brother to Grandma has a Facebook account, Instagram page, or Snapchat—sometimes all three.

Naturally, this trend has made its way into the workplace, with consequences ranging from harmless to potentially devastating. Ten years ago, when starting out with social media co-workers were among the first people we would “friend.” In 2018, with so much more known about the wide-reaching ramification of these channels, this practice deserves a closer look.

Brittney Wilson, BSN, RN, is an award-winning blogger, author, and social media expert who is he owner and founder of The Nerdy Nurse, one of the more popular nursing sites on the Web. Of the top-20 most popular nursing sites, The Nerdy Nurse is the only one owned and operated by an RN. Wilson shared some thoughts on proper social media protocol for healthcare professionals.


Wilson doesn’t mince words when it comes to her own experiences with starting The Nerdy Nurse.

“I was frustrated with my experiences being bullied as a new nurse,” she revealed. “Just nurses eating their young. I had talked to everyone else I knew until I was blue in the face about just how horrible people were to me. So I decided to talk to the Internet about it.”

At first, of course, she chose to remain anonymous. “It’s not the image of myself I wanted to express to the world,” she admitted. “Let’s face it, I was complaining mostly.”

But she quickly realized the value of the data and resources she was collecting through her online experiences. As a result, she says she “cleaned up” the site, branding it as The Nerdy Nurse in 2010.

In all, Wilson’s online experience of sharing her struggles and later developing a powerhouse website spans a full decade—the same decade that has seen the rampant growth of social media for better or worse. That growth means a new set of challenges—moral, professional, and otherwise—for nurses on social media.

“One phenomenon I see increasing I both frequency and complexity is friends wanting to friend [nurses] on Facebook,” said Wilson.

Some nurses just don’t see this as any big deal, especially those who care for a patient long-term, or perhaps those who form a relationship with members of a patient’s family. “A lot of emotional guards go down,” said Wilson. “That’s probably the biggest mistake I see—nurses and patients thinking they can friend [one another].”

But why is it a clear mistake? Isn’t it just a matter of personal preference or privacy? “Nursing,” said Wilson, “is meant to be a relationship that ends when you leave the hospital. From day one in nursing school, we’re trying to prepare these nurses for the end of the relationship.”

Take your most seemingly innocent scenario—a patient, who spends a couple days in the hospital for something relatively manageable—a shoulder surgery, an infection—has a favorable experience with one of his or her nurses, both professionally and personally. Upon returning home, he or she decided to find the nurse of Facebook, or perhaps the two have a face-to-face discussion about staying in touch via social media. These are two grown adults, who’ve met each other in real life, and made the conscious decision to continue their friendship or relationship outside the hospital confines.

“The professional implications can actually be pretty huge,” Wilson clarified. “You really don’t know that person. Frankly, when I talk and teach on social media, I advise that you only ‘friend’ people you’ve met in real life, and with whom you feel confident sharing photos of your children.”

Does the scenario outlined above cover those criteria? Not as much as you might think. “They don’t really know you,” said Wilson. “They know the professional image you put forth at work.

“Nurses come in all shapes and sizes. They do all types of different things when they leave work, different activities, interests that society, or a particular patient may find off-putting, and they can report you for that to your boss, the State Board of Nursing… the short, simple answer is you don’t know what they’ll do once they see inside your private life.”

Even a situation where your ‘patient friend’ takes offense or disagrees with a political or social view you express via Facebook or other social media can have unforeseen ramifications at work. No, you probably won’t be fired for expressing your political views, or your opinions on the new tax regulations. But chances are you don’t want those topics brought into the workplace either, and oversharing or overfriending on social media can lead to that very outcome.

Social media relationships between co-workers is a tougher area to draw the line, according to Wilson. Once a relationship is established, especially one that continues with a friendship outside of the workplace, it makes total sense to become someone’s friend on Facebook or Instagram. However, too many people are prone to assuming their new co-workers are automatically their friends, and will attempt to extend that relationship to social media channels before it’s appropriate.

“You don’t know that person,” Wilson reiterated. “They could be trying to scope you out. I mentioned nurses eating their young—that wasn’t unique to me. I don’t mean to be a downer, but you have to look at the tendency.”

Of course, refusing or ignoring someone friend’s request can lead to an awkward interaction within the workplace, so Wilson offers a ‘meet me halfway’ of sorts. “I would connect with them via LinkedIn,” she offered. “And if they don’t have a LinkedIn, that’s an opportunity for you to be a teacher, an educator to them, and show them the value [LinkedIn] has professionally.”

Coming soon: more advice on co-worker interactions, plus talking to patients about social media.

Brittney Wilson, founder of The Nerdy Nurse, is available to speak to your staff. She can be reached via her website.

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