Not all care-giving positions carry high status or lavish compensation. Still, why would anyone take on any health care work lacking basic common sense and the tiniest bit of compassion? That’s what you might be asking after the latest head-shaking reporting about invasions of patients’ privacy: Pro Publica’s Charles Ornstein has found at least three dozen incidents in which nursing home staffers have posted abusive photos of elderly residents on social media.
The aged, sometimes mentally infirm patients were photographed or video-recorded naked or partially so, led to sing or say unacceptable things such as praises for cocaine, and, in some instances, on the receiving end of slaps or other unseemly actions by their caregivers. These images then were shared with others and on social media.
The ghastly incidents sometimes resulted in staffers’ discipline, dismissal, or even criminal charging. But not always — this even though they would seem on their face to be violations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, the federal patient privacy law that carries civil and criminal penalties.
Such violations should be dealt with briskly and stiffly. At risk of sounding like a cranky Luddite, I’d also say that not only staff but patients and families, too, need to stuff their portable electronic devices into pockets and purses and keep them there during doctor or hospital trips, unless there’s concrete, specific need for them. In emergencies, smart phones can be a boon so families can keep in touch — discreetly — in hospital or clinical settings. Some institutions are exploring how smart devices can assist in the care of patients, such as with apps monitoring specific conditions, so not every caregiver clasping a phone in hand deserves a mean glance.
But staff, patients, and their families also can breach others’ privacy, perhaps, unwittingly with device use: Grammy taking a picture of beaming mom and new tot in an ob-gyn’s office can capture other patients awaiting care for who knows what private conditions; shooting and posting a shot of a pal in recovery in the Emergency Department after a whoa-bro accident also may catch others in a sad shape they would never want. Notables and celebrities deserve the right to seek whatever medical care they need without others taking smartphone pictures of them, then posting them to social media — and even huckstering them to tabloid outlets in print or broadcast.
And while Ornstein offers an excellent rip on nosy, abusive nursing home workers, inappropriate use of social media and confounding photographic invasions of patients’ privacy by medical staff are not confined just to them. Selfies by shooters of all age and social standing have made a mess of parks, amusement parks, concert halls, and restaurants. I’m hard pressed to see their role in doctor’s offices, clinics, or hospitals.
By the way, besides his reporting on the bad nursing home staff, Ornstein has written recently on the small, one-off privacy violations that cause patients pain. And he’s just detailed how a New Jersey psychology practice has made public the diagnoses and treatment of its patients as part of its efforts to collect debts. Egads.