Social Media and the EMS Employee

Paramedics and other emergency workers face unique communication issues when on duty.  Speed, constant availability and focus are paramount.  So how does one check their smart phone email, update their Facebook status or tweet out an update?  Turns out they don't.  At least not in some of the organizations that are starting to ban personal electronic devices in the workplace because of the realities of an emergency worker's day to day job.

I spoke at the Manitoba EMS Conference, InterAct2012 last weekend and met a lot of smart, friendly, and talented people.  I presented on social media in the workplace, an issue which has a number of unique nuances when the employee is busy driving emergency vehicles and saving lives.  Click here for a copy of the power point presentation.

Here are few of the issues EMS workers face in our evolving social media world.

Patient Confidentiality

Patient confidentiality regularly winds its way throughout the case law involving health professionals.  Health professionals are governed by provincial privacy legislation and are usually trustees of the personal health information they interact with throughout their day.  There is a very low tolerance in the case law for revealing confidential information. 

Social media gives rise to challenges around inadvertent disclosure of patient confidentiality, which in several cases has led to termination of employment. 

An example is in Credit Valley Hospital v CUPE in which a hospital employee was called to clean up after a patient had tragically committed suicide in the parking lot.  The deceased patient had already been removed, and the employee took two pictures of the scene, posted them to his Facebook and added this comment on one photo: "Mother pleads with kid not to jump off PRCC side of the parking lot but did anyways poor thing".  Through his comment, he revealed the age, medical information and location of the patient.  His termination was upheld at arbitration. 

Safety

Given the intense, emergency situations that EMS workers regularly find themselves in, the issue of safety is frequent raised.  With many provinces now passing laws prohibiting the use of any hand-held electric device while driving, the usual safety concerns also interact with traffic laws.  A brief call on the cell phone, a quick text or a mindless glance at the Twitter feed all while driving are safety issues, let alone a PR disaster when such conduct is noticed by the public.

And yet, EMS workers are human too - they have spouses, a social life, daycare workers to communicate with, co-workers to interact with online, time to kill when waiting on a call for hours in the hallway of a hospital.  This tension will no doubt continue to be part of the lively conversation between EMS providers and their unions.  How does the school of a paramedic's child contact him during the day when his child is sick?  Can't co-workers shoot each other a quick text about a job related task?  Management will continue to point out the infrastructure in place to contact workers on a call should there be a personal emergency, and at the end of the day, providers generally prioritize the safety of patients and employees when on duty.

BYOD

Many employers are starting to adopt a "bring your own device" approach in the workplace, largely in response to employee requests.  The opposite is happening in some EMS workplaces, however, given concerns around patient confidentiality and safety.  Some EMS employers are simply banning any personal electronic devices in the workplace.  When the purpose of such a policy focuses on safety and patient confidentiality, rather than curbing employee conduct, it will be difficult for employees to resist such a policy.

As social media continues to infuse every corner of our lives 24/7, it will be interesting to watch the EMS world, and to see how health care professionals will balance the tension between personal desire for access to the online world, and the practical realities of the job that present challenges to such access.

For additional updates, please visit Lisa Stam's blog, Employment and Human Rights Law in Canada.

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