Counseling Today, Features

Technology Tutor: Revisiting the ethics of discussing clients online

By Rob Reinhardt November 7, 2017

If you have given even a cursory observation to the advertisements that appear on Facebook, during Google searches or on many of the websites that you visit, you will have noticed that these advertisements are targeted at you. The ads might be related to web searches you have performed, the area you live in or something that is generally popular with your age group.

This is how companies such as Facebook and Google make almost all of their money. They gather information about you (and everyone else) and sell advertising to companies that want to target you. They make a lot of money doing this because they are very good at letting those companies get very specific with their targeting. (Google reported revenues of $26 billion in the fourth quarter of 2016 alone.) For a glimpse into the kinds of details that Facebook collects about people, check out the great infographic at bit.ly/FBTargetOptions. That list keeps growing and getting more refined. It is especially important to note this passage from Facebook’s overview of how to target ads: “Behaviors are constructed from both someone’s activity on Facebook and offline activity provided by data from Facebook’s trusted third-party partners.”

In other words, to target advertising to their users, Facebook is collecting data from many different sources about both online and offline activity. So, this is not restricted only to the activity on Facebook.

What does this have to do with our clients (and potential clients)?

I continue to witness counselors engaging in referrals and case consultation in online forums such as Listservs and Facebook groups. This is despite my previous article on this topic last year in Counseling Today (see bit.ly/discussingclients) in which I discussed the difficulty of maintaining confidentiality for clients and the PIT principle (permanence, identity, transferability), and even with American Counseling Association Chief Professional Officer David Kaplan clearly stating that discussing clients online is an ethics no-no. The existence of marketing databases curated by entities such as Facebook and Google adds yet another reason that we need to consider other ways of addressing client needs.

Take this example of a completely fictional situation that could quite easily refer to a real situation:

Johnny Client contacts Susie Counselor about an appointment. He provides some background, and Susie recognizes that she is not a great fit for him. She decides to reach out to her local mailing list or Facebook group of therapists to see if she can provide Johnny with a solid referral. She writes: “Looking for referral for 30-something male dealing with depression. Needs counselor in network with ABC Insurance.”

Although this may seem innocuous at first, it is likely more than enough information for Johnny to be identified. In my previous article, I pointed out the human reasons this is an issue. (For instance, what if someone who knows Johnny or even Johnny himself is in the group? What if someone copies and pastes or screenshots the information?)

Now let’s look at it from a targeted marketing standpoint. Johnny’s call to Susie didn’t happen in a vacuum. Prior to calling her, Johnny did a search for “Counselor MyTown” and visited Susie’s website. These are traceable behaviors tied directly to Johnny, and they likely will end up in the databases used by entities such as Google and Facebook to target advertising. Based on these behaviors, Johnny is likely to start seeing ads on his computer for mental health treatments, counselors in the area and self-help books.

It is important to note that Susie Counselor is now probably connected to Johnny in these databases because he visited her website and placed a call to her. So, when she posts about the 30-something male with depression shortly after receiving Johnny’s call, it’s not a huge leap for database algorithms to figure out that this is the same Johnny Client who recently visited her website and called her — the same Johnny Client whose address, birthday and many other pieces of information already exist in the databases. Except now, thanks to Susie, those databases have learned that Johnny is dealing with depression. They may well have already known what insurance Johnny has, but if not, that’s another bonus that Susie provided for them.

What you can do

I’d like to highlight one of my suggestions from the previous article as well as provide a couple of other suggestions:

  • Make it counselor-centric: When seeking someone to refer to, focus on the counselor’s skills, not the client’s issues. For example, you might say, “I’m looking for a counselor who helps clients dealing with depression.”
  • Keep it offline: Go old school! Keep your own notebook or database of people you can refer to. Note their strengths, location, the insurance they accept, etc. Network and get to know them to elevate the quality of your referrals.
  • Raise awareness: Sometimes, counselors need to be reminded of things that we often tell our clients. For instance, just because others are engaging in a behavior doesn’t make it OK. Make others in your online forums aware of the privacy issues surrounding discussing referrals and cases online. Point them to this article and to my previous article that I referenced earlier. Point them to the pertinent passages in the ACA Code of Ethics (noted below). Even if they aren’t counselors, the ethics codes for social workers, psychologists, marriage and family therapists and psychiatrists contain similar passages, so their concern for client privacy and confidentiality should be just as great. Above all, be kind and compassionate in your approach.

Pertinent standards in the ACA Code of Ethics

B.1.c. Respect for Confidentiality

“Counselors protect the confidential information of prospective and current clients. Counselors disclose information only with appropriate consent or with sound legal or ethical justification.”

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Note the inclusion of “prospective” clients. Do you have the person’s consent before disclosing anything about them online? Can you accomplish your goal without disclosing information about them online? If so, what is your legal or ethical justification for disclosing?

B.2.e. Minimal Disclosure

“To the extent possible, clients are informed before confidential information is disclosed and are involved in the disclosure decision-making process. When circumstances require the disclosure of confidential information, only essential information is revealed.”

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Do clients (or prospective clients) fully understand the ramifications of you disclosing information about them online? Do they understand how few details it might take for computer algorithms to identify them? Are they aware of all the options for accomplishing the goal, and do they approve of online disclosure?

B.3.c. Confidential Settings

“Counselors discuss confidential information only in settings in which they can reasonably ensure client privacy.”

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Is there any way that this standard doesn’t completely rule out using online forums for any disclosure? Based on my experience and expertise, there simply is no way that counselors can reasonably ensure client privacy if they share any details about clients in most online forums.

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For an interesting discussion of this topic, including an interview with social media policy expert Keely Kolmes, check out Episode 104 of the TherapyTech with Rob and Roy podcast.

 

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Rob Reinhardt, a licensed professional counselor supervisor, is a private practice and business consultant who helps counselors create and maintain efficient, successful private practices. Before becoming a professional counselor, he worked as a software developer and director of information technology. Contact him at rob@tameyourpractice.com.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

3 Comments

  1. Lena Sheffield LMHC CAP MAC CEDS

    I have been giving workshops on professional boundaries and social media. It is our responsibility to protect client confidentiality, one way is by not providing a platform to post client information for the public. Anything that goes online is public.

    There’s more to cover. I’m really glad you gave so many e smokes. It’s very easy to get sloppy and irresponsible by using social media to short cut our efforts.

    Lena Sheffield LMHC CAP MAC CEDS
    Miami FL

    Reply
  2. Angela Cook

    “Keep it offline.” is NOT a solution in this world where using the Internet has become unavoidable. I understand the need to keep confidentiality, but let’s discuss how we can use technology the best for clients. This article stinks of technophobia, which there’s far too much of in the mental health field. Mental health professionals need to stop fearmongering and blaming technology for problems and learn how to use it instead.

    Even beyond the mental health field, there is widespread ignorance of even basic cybersecurity practices. Almost no one can work in any job without some use of computers being involved, yet there are people who practically brag about their ignorance of computers. It’s reprehensible. Society as a whole needs better technological education.

    If many online forums are too public, spearhead private secure forums for counselors to use. Don’t just complain. Make a change. That’s what we tell clients, so it’s irresponsible to expect otherwise of ourselves.

    Reply
    1. Rob Reinhardt Post author

      I appreciate that this article is generating discussion! If you follow my writings, podcast and other information, I hope you will have a clear understanding that, it is my aim to take fear out of technology and promote its use to benefit both counselors and their clients.

      I’m sorry that you took me offering “Keep it offline” as a single potential option, as promoting a global solution. That was not the intention and I offered other options for responsibly addressing the same goals online. I am not advocating for avoidance of technology, but rather for a change in how people are using it, as far too many are currently using it irresponsibly, in my opinion.

      I completely concur that an ideal solution would involve technology in a way that can accomplish our goals, while also guaranteeing client confidentiality. If you read my previous article regarding this topic (linked above), you will see that there are a number of obstacles to the creation of a truly secure, and privacy-enhancing forum for discussion online.

      Let’s continue the discussion. I’m curious how you feel we might address the concerns about Permanence, Identity (Authentication), and Transferability (noted in the previous article) and whether, even then, we might be best served by employing a counselor-centric approach instead?

      Rob Reinhardt
      rob@tameyourpractice.com
      http://www.tameyourpractice.com

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