Social Media Do’s and Don’ts for Nurses

Most nurses are comfortable using social media to connect with family and friends, but are unsure about how to use it in a professional context. As the world of health informatics collides with the world of social media (or “new media,” as some health IT experts prefer to call it), it has wide-ranging implications for clinicians, patients, and public health policy.

Here are some tips on making the most of social media, brought to you from nurses on the floor—and on the forefront of these new technologies.

1. Let social media curate health news and research studies for you.

You may not be interested in the social aspects of social media (“I don’t care what my coworkers had for lunch!”), but dig deeper and you will see that there’s a world of opportunity and information, according to Lorry Schoenly, PhD, RN, CCHP-RN, owner of the blog, 

“Twitter is my news and information source,” she says. “I follow nurses, doctors, radiologists, and others so they curate the news for me. I can quickly stream the different content areas I’ve set up and skim through them in a couple of minutes, a few times a week.”

There is so much new research to keep up with—social media can save you the time and money (for journal subscriptions, say) that you’d otherwise have to invest, Schoenly adds.

In social media, “it’s all about knowing, liking, and trusting sources,” says Schoenly. If you’ve developed streams from trusted sources, you can quickly come up to speed on important health issues, public policy, and gray areas of clinical practice.

With all the noise out there on the web, how can you single out reliable sources? For starters, has a list of free health care social media resources on 140 topics. They curate them based on recommendations from thousands of health care professionals (a form of “crowdsourcing”) to ensure that these blogs, Facebook groups, Twitter feeds, and YouTube channels are high quality.

As you tap these resources, be on the lookout for these health care social media “stamps of approval”:

• Health on the Net Foundation (HONcode);

• The Healthcare Blogger Code of Ethics (group is no longer active, but designation is still used);

• Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

2. Start your social media journey with training wheels.

Some nurses are so intimidated by social media and fearful about making a mistake that they avoid it all together, or go into “lockdown mode,” blocking their profiles and activity from public view. Example: the nurse manager who has only a Facebook profile (under a phony name) and ventures on it just to see photos of her grandchildren.

That type of avoidance makes some administrators and recruiters wonder about a nurse’s ability to leverage technology, or suspect that it’s a deliberate attempt to hide something unsavory.

Andrea Hill, RN, MSN, FNP-BC, an assistant nurse manager at University of North Carolina Hospitals in Chapel Hill, took a brief course on social media at work. She was instructed to “be careful what you put out there,” so she’s eager to avoid any activity that could be “misconstrued or misjudged,” she says. She is comfortable, however, communicating with fellow staff members on her unit’s Facebook page because of safeguards.

“We have to invite staff to be members, and you can’t necessarily see their personal page unless they invite you. We don’t invite patients or outsiders and wouldn’t accept their request, if that ever happened,” she explains.

Hill also belongs to a Doctorate of Nursing Practice online community sponsored by a professional group and enjoys discussing global health issues there. Locally, she participates on the North Carolina Organization for Nurse Leaders Facebook page as time allows.

3. Empower your patients through medical social media.

“Social media is a whole new tool to empower patients,” says Ramona Nelson, PhD, RN-BC, ANEF, FAAN, author of Social Media for Nurses. “We should be educating patients about it. Nurses should learn about their patient population and possible resources for them. You may be surprised what’s out there and what resources patients are using. For example, where are adolescents going to get informed? I looked at the Seventeen magazine website and it has some very interesting information on various adolescent issues, such as sexual health,” she explains.

According to Nelson, research shows that patients often go to the Internet first to prepare for a doctor’s visit; it helps them compile a list of clear and concise questions. Then, after the visit, they use the Internet to reinforce what the doctor told them. When clinics provide access to a computer and digital resources for patients, patients can make good use of time spent waiting for an appointment, she concludes.

Nurses should also educate patients about privacy concerns and the associated risks of social media, says Nelson. “There are numerous apps you can download onto a phone. They send that information somewhere. Who’s getting that information? If it’s not a covered entity—a software company, and not a physician—that information is not protected by HIPAA.”

Also, she adds that some of that social media user health data is collected, packaged, and sold to organizations, such as pharmaceutical companies. “That’s not a bad thing, necessarily, because it may help develop better drugs. But patients have to be aware when sharing personal information so they can do that safely.”

4. Level the playing field for minority populations.

Social media can make health information more pertinent to minority patients. For example, a Spanish-language diabetes app may appeal to Hispanic patients who reportedly have a higher than average rate of cell phone ownership.

Beyond the technology, minority nurses and those who care for minority populations “should push for culturally sensitive and appropriate information,” says Nelson. “It’s as simple as a parent looking up a rash in a child. They will notice there are many images of light-skinned children with various rashes. But a rash looks different on dark skin rather than light, and the number of examples of children with darker skin is more limited. We need more resources that are sensitive to the race, culture, and health literacy of patients and their families.”

5. Start a nurse blog—or contribute to one.

In 2002, an RN who goes by only “Gina” started Code Blog—Tales of a Nurse (, and has updated it ever since. “I had a personal blog with my husband and was writing nursing type stories on it,” she explains, “and a friend suggested that I start a whole blog just for nursing stories.  So I did.” She was an ER nurse at the time (and in total has 15 years of nursing experience), so the name is a play on words for “code blue.”

“My experience has been extremely positive so far! I wrote more pre-children for sure, but I enjoyed writing about interesting experiences I had and getting reactions and feedback,” she adds. “I’ve met some great nurse bloggers, even in person, and that was a great experience as well. The benefits of blogging are—you get a platform for writing. Sometimes people read it and comment on it! And that’s wonderful. Sometimes it starts an interesting dialogue.”

Have your own compelling nurse tale to share with the whole, wide blogosphere? Gina accepts submissions, sans identifying details that may breach patient confidentiality.  “In other words, use your noggin’,” say her submission guidelines. She’s especially interested in true tales, and stories that are “entertaining and thought-provoking.”

6. Tap into the power of Twitter.

Not a lot of nurses utilize Twitter, but this micro-blogging platform is a favorite of savvy clinicians and recruiters. It’s easier to connect with people here—especially experts and other hard-to-reach folks—because it’s a low-risk, 140-word commitment. From there you can deepen the connection on other platforms (e.g., tweet “would you mind if I connect with you on LinkedIn?”).

For job-seeking nurses, sites such as are especially helpful for getting a jump on other applicants who wait for a job to be posted on a website. Twitter is more immediate, so you get to be the first one in a recruiter’s inbox.

Twitter is opening doorways in the areas of health education and policy. Nurse- entrepreneur Brian Norris, MBA, RM-BC, FHIMSS, CEO of Social Health Insights, took his dozen years in informatics and created a health-related Twitter app, in partnership with an IT developer.  His inspiration? A US Department of Health and Human Services innovation challenge, called “Now Trending #Health in My Community,” sought to mine Twitter data for disease surveillance. They “requested we map 200 set terms, such as flu, influenza, and malaria,” says Norris. His team won the challenge with their app,, which has powerful applications for visualizing and researching disease trends. His company also offers other health information services and products for government and health care organizations.

7. Get LinkedIn.

LinkedIn is the single best social media platform for nursing professionals and job seekers. It’s like signing up for a hyper-resume and virtual networking party, and best of all, it’s free. If you haven’t completed a profile yet, do it immediately. And if you already have one, update it and connect to other members so that you fully utilize this awesome tool.

Another way to network with LinkedIn’s more than 259 million members is to find several groups that resonate with you and join them. (There are many nursing groups; usually they are based on specialty.) Then you can contact any of the members at no charge. Otherwise, you have to find someone in your network that has a connection to the member you want to reach and get introduced, or pay a fee to send a direct message.

8. Don’t overdose on social media.

New nursing grads who grew up texting, Skyping, Tweeting, Facebooking, and the like are known as “social media natives” and may have a different set of challenges than older colleagues. They have to shift their mindset from “sharing with 1,000 of my closest friends” to “presenting myself as a nursing professional.”

“I’m 23, so I’m on social media a lot of the time—mostly Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr,” says Dana Kouchel, RN, BSN, a nurse at University of North Carolina Hospitals in Chapel Hill. “I recently became Facebook friends with some coworkers.  I like seeing their family pictures and posting ones of us together outside of work. Sometimes social media is in the back of my mind, and I have to disable it, otherwise it could be a distraction.”

Kouchel is careful not to share any stories about work on Facebook because “it’s a slippery slope and I don’t want to invade anyone’s privacy. We’re patient advocates and I don’t want to jeopardize the nurse-patient relationship. They put their trust in us.” At the same time, she tries to always be “tasteful and professional,” and never include alcohol in pictures, say.

Nursing students and recent graduates are the ones more likely to go back through their various social media profiles and clean them up. What looks like fun at a sorority or frat party may be construed as an example of poor judgment once you’ve entered the professional world.

Jebra Turner is a freelance health and business writer based in Portland, Oregon. She frequently contributes to the Minority Nurse magazine and website. Visit her online at 


Jebra Turner
Jebra Turner

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