• The email, reviewed by Business Insider, revealed the company could fire employees who spoke to media or posted on social media about the health system's coronavirus policy.
  • One nur se told Business Insider thatHCA Healthcare has already suspended her for violating the social media policy in apost in a private Facebook group.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories .

The largest healthcare system in the UShas told employees that itwill fire nurses and doctors who speak publicly about its policiesregarding the novel coronavirus outbreak, according to an internal memo reviewed by Business Insider.

HCA Healthcare, the country's largest health system, with 185 hospitals in 20 states , sent an email to employees on March 24 that added new guidelines for social media and media inquiries during the coronavirus pandemic. The email said HCA employees could get disciplined or even fired for posting information on social media about its policies regarding treatment of coronavirus patients. The health system also barred employees from speaking to journalists about the virus without explicit permission from HCA's communications director.

One nurse, Jhonna Porter, told Business Insider that HCA Healthcare has already suspended her for violating these new guidelines, and did so retroactively, for activity of hers that predated March 24. Porter, a charge nurse at West Hills Hospital , said HCA Healthcare suspended her without pay on March 25, just a day after it had sent the email updating its social media policy.

Porter told Business Insider that she hadn't violated the new policy, and that she believed the actual reason for the suspension is that she has been a whistleblower, calling out hospital equipment shortages. And now her freedom of expression is being stifled during a crisis, she added. Her case paints a picture of how hospitals have been pushed to the brink by the coronavirus pandemic, and how the strain is starting to show.

Hospitals might be cracking down on nurses who call out dire mask shortages amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Experts have predicted that the novel coronavirus outbreak, which had infected more than 336,000 Americans as of April 6 , would push US hospitals and health systems to their limits. US hospitals have a limited amount of ICU beds and ventilators , or machines used to treat respiratory illnesses such as COVID-19, caused by thiscoronavirus, creating chaos for nurses and doctors treating the rapidly increasing number of patients.

Many healthcare workers have taken to social media or spoken to news organizations, including Business Insider, to call out the shortage of protective equipment, such as masks, as well as the lack of protocol for treating COVID-19 patients. Nurses and other healthcare workers have been worried that inadequate supplies will leave them at risk of contracting the disease .

Business Insider's Lydia Ramsey reported that experts from HCA Healthcare helped devise hospital coronavirus response plans for use nationwide.

Porter said HCA Healthcare issued her suspension over a phone call and told her it was for talking to her colleagues in a private Facebook group regarding a floor the hospital had turned into one for treating patients with COVID-19. According to Porter, the health system said her social media activity was a violation of the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, commonly known as HIPAA, which mandates that healthcare workers keep patient information private.

Porter said her post did not name the health system or mention sensitive patient information. Rather, she said she was being punished for being a whistleblower who called out equipment shortages and other hospital issues.

"I know my HIPAA laws and I didn't violate HIPAA," Porter said in an interview with Business Insider. "I told [a hospital representative] I felt singled out and I felt attacked. I said many nurses are all posting the same things that I am, why am I the only one being suspended? He had no answers for me."

According to Porter, her union representative has asked HCA about the specific reason she was suspended and has not received an answer, other than that she has been put under "investigatory suspension." HCA Healthcare has not responded to Business Insider's requests for comment.

HCA Healthcare is publicly traded, with backing from private equity firms Bain and KKR, which took the system private in a $33 billion deal in 2006, at the time the largest leveraged buyout in history . Its current market capitalization is nearly $30 billion.

Read the email HCA Healthcare sent to employees on March 24 below:

As employees we all are a reflection of the brand and thus are at the very core of the fabric that keeps the organization intact.

It is of the upmost importance that we follow the social media/media inquiry guidelines- these are meant to protect our employees, patients and the organization.

During this time of heightened media attention around COVID-19 some of you may be contacted by a variety of media sources via social media, email, text, or phone call.

Social Media/Media Inquiry Guidelines:

  • Personal social media accounts are a reflection of your personal brand and the company, so if you choose to interact with the brand in either a positive or a negative manner this is public and can be monitored
  • Unless specifically authorized, employees are restricted from speaking on behalf of the HCA Healthcare
  • Employees are expected to protect the privacy of patients, employees and other stakeholders and are prohibited from disclosing patient information without proper authorization
  • Employees are also prohibited from disclosing proprietary or confidential information to which they have access and work with as part of their job duties , without proper authorization, inclusive of recent policy changes due to COVID-19
  • Do NOT provide information on patient statuses /information IT IS A HIPAA VIOLATION and will be treated as such
  • All media inquiries should be fielded by the Director of Strategic Communications ONLY
  • Directors of Strategic Communications are highly trained professionals in media relations, brand/reputation management, crisis communication and have HCA specific compliance training around their roles
  • Non-compliance around these policies can result in disciplinary actions up to and including termination .

Attached are the HCA approved social media guidelines that should be adhered to at all times.

Our goal is to ensure that information around COVID-19 is accurate and in line with the CDC guidelines. All HCA generated social media activity is compliant with these guidelines and reflective of the truth.

NOW WATCH: Why bidets are better than buying countless rolls of toilet paper

See Also:

SEE ALSO: 'We're grossly unprepared': Nurses share their frustration as the coronavirus spreads with little direction from the government or hospitals on how to mitigate it