Misreporting on medical privacy

I’ve got nothing but respect for health-care journalists. They have a tough job and they do it well. But stories like this drive me crazy.

When Sharp Grossmont Hospital officials realized anesthesia drugs were disappearing from surgery carts, they turned to video surveillance to catch those responsible.  In the process, they also captured many images of women undergoing surgery.

The video surveillance has raised questions about patient privacy and how well the hospital managed its storage of dangerous drugs.

An attorney representing a doctor who has been accused of taking the drugs from an anesthesia cart and putting them in his shirt pocket claims the hospital’s “shocking” and “secret” surveillance, which went on for nearly a year starting July 17, 2012, violated the privacy rights of hundreds of patients.

Let me get this straight. A hospital had a potential disaster on its hands. It feared that medical personnel were stealing and abusing anesthesia drugs—a clear threat to patient safety. It acted decisively to identify a physician who was stealing those drugs and swiftly reported him to the California licensing board.

And the problem here is the hospital? The women who were filmed couldn’t possibly have expected that hospital employees wouldn’t watch their surgeries. And the videos were never released to anyone outside the hospital. The threat to privacy is entirely notional. (Unless the physician’s lawyer gets his way, of course. He wants to watch each and every one of them.)

And don’t talk to me about consent forms. If there are ethical problems here, why should it matter whether the hospital added a sentence about videotaping to an inscrutable piece of paper that no one ever reads?

It’s so easy to assume the pose of crusading journalist when it comes to patient privacy. You’ll find an audience that’ll join with you in righteous indignation. You don’t have to dwell on the tradeoffs that privacy protections inevitably entail. You don’t even have to evaluate whether anyone was actually harmed. The whiff of compromised privacy, however hypothetical, is enough to get clicks.

Most health-care journalists aren’t guilty of the cheap finger-pointing. But lots are. That creates awful incentives for providers. Instead of doing the right thing—say, videotaping operating rooms to catch a dangerous doctor—they’ll be tempted sit on their hands. They might refuse to share information with anyone, even if they’re allowed to under the law, because of the risk of bad press. Patient privacy, bolstered by a routine invocation of HIPAA, becomes an all-purpose excuse to clam up.

There are serious privacy problems out there, lord knows. Journalists should cover them. But not every claim of compromised privacy deserves to be taken seriously.


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