Visiting the doctor can be … well, awkward. No one enjoys donning an onionskin gown and waiting in a chilly room for a pelvic exam or prostate probing and testicular palpation. Perhaps a colonoscopy will be performed or a catheter placed. Fresh humiliations lie at every turn and within every orifice.
Medical emergencies thrust us into even less dignified circumstances, without the luxury of a mental rehearsal. But what’s the worst that can happen? The nurses notice you haven’t kept up with your manscaping? Dr. McDreamy has to cut away your shapewear to plug a sucking chest wound? Totally worth it.
We shake off these humbling experiences the moment we leave the physician’s office or hospital, confident that what happened behind the privacy curtain will stay there. But now we have a different kind of exposure to worry about: becoming some doctor’s 140-character case study or the latest trophy on his Facebook wall. That’s what happened to a 23-year-old model admitted to Chicago’s Northwestern Memorial Hospital last June for excessive alcohol consumption. An emergency department physician allegedly took photos of her in which she appears anxious and disheveled. He’s accused of having posted the unbecoming shots on Facebook and Instagram.
In a similar incident in August, an off-duty employee of Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids, Mich., photographed an attractive female patient in the emergency department and posted the image on Facebook, with the blandly pervy caption “I like what I like.” He and several colleagues implicated in the misconduct are now free to seek upskirt opportunities elsewhere.
About 30 percent of state medical boards report having fielded complaints of “online violations of patient confidentiality,” according to a recent survey published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. More than 10 percent had handled an episode like the one at Northwestern Memorial, involving what the survey refers to as “online depiction of intoxication.” A study by QuantiaMD reports that 13 percent of physicians admit to having used public online platforms to hash out specific cases with fellow practitioners. Names are withheld, but providers may inadvertently supply other details that allow patients to be identified.
The immediacy and presumed anonymity of online sharing make it easy for a patient to become a doctor or nurse’s chief complaint. According to the Federation of State Medical Boards, one patient took offense at a blog entry in which a physician branded another patient “lazy” and “ignorant” for repeatedly failing to control her glucose level. The FSMB cites this grievance as an example of how “use of social media and social networking may undermine a proper physician-patient relationship and the public trust.”
A Missouri doctor’s criticism of a habitually tardy mother-to-be outraged many patients but drew sympathy from her colleagues at St. John’s Mercy Medical Center: “So I have a patient who has chosen to either no-show or be late (sometimes hours) for all of her prenatal visits, ultrasounds, and NSTs,” the OB-GYN fumed to her Facebook friends. “She is now 3 hours late for her induction. May I show up late to her delivery?” The doctor also revealed that the patient had previously had a stillbirth.
At University Medical Center in Jackson, Miss., an administrative employee resigned in December 2009 after tweeting a water-cooler rumor she’d heard involving then-Gov. Haley Barbour. The tweet intimated that the hospital had once opened after hours, at taxpayers’ expense, to accommodate an exam at the governor’s convenience. Federal privacy regulations are so strict that without explicit permission, it’s a violation even to disclose that a person has received care at a particular facility.
A lack of compassion sometimes spawns disregard of patients’ privacy rights. At Mercy Walworth Hospital and Medical Center in Lake Geneva, Wis., two nurses were terminated in February 2009 for posting the X-ray of a patient who had presented for treatment with a sexual device lodged in his rectum. The nurses, who apparently had no other duties to attend to, snapped cellphone pics on the sly and shared at least one of the images on Facebook.