Patient Privacy Rights Extend Beyond U.S. Borders, Ethicists Say

John Commins, February 22, 2011

Most U.S. healthcare providers would never photograph patients and post the pictures on the Internet. Doing so, they understand, would violate patient confidentiality, and would merit substantial fines for breaching the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. 

Yet, some U.S. physicians, nurses, medical students, and other providers who volunteer their medical skills in developing nations have posted pictures of their patients on Facebook and other social media Web sites. That doesn't violate HIPAA because it's beyond U.S. borders, but it is a breach of ethics, University of College of Medicine researchers write in a Journal of Medical Internet Research study. The researchers want providers to respect privacy rights for all patients, regardless of where they're treated and where they live. 

"A medical student would not take a picture of a patient in clinic here and post it on Facebook," said Erik Black, an assistant professor of pediatrics with the UF College of Medicine and a lead author of the paper. "But there is a disconnect on these trips. We are not respecting these people as individuals. If we are not going to respect them in the same way we respect patients in the United States, why are we even going?" 

UF researchers examined the Facebook profile pages of 1,023 medical students and residents, finding no breaches of patients' privacy in the United States. However, they found 12 photos of patient care in developing countries.

John Commins

John Commins is a senior editor at HealthLeaders Media.

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