A U.S. privacy crackdown: Hospital fined $2.2 million in filming of dying patient

ny-med-premiereHospital patients who are dying or in extreme duress should not have their privacy exploited by reality television camera shows, federal health care regulators now have made clear. They have just settled with a noted New York hospital on $2.2 million in penalties and fines for its role in cooperating with a celebrity doctor whose crews recorded for broadcast the last throes of a an elderly Manhattan resident fatally injured when hit by a garbage truck.

The dead patient’s family complained that neither he nor they gave the hospital permission to film during his unsuccessful emergency treatment. Further, they said repeated broadcasts of the reality TV show “New York Med,” headlined by Mehmet Oz (the heart surgeon-cum-TV show celebrity known as “Dr. Oz”), caused them great pain and distress, as well as invading their and their loved one’s privacy.

Federal authorities, who oversee patient privacy matters under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), finally agreed with the family years after they filed complaints, posting online this stance about patients’ protected health information (PHI):

Health care providers cannot invite or allow media personnel, including film crews, into treatment or other areas of their facilities where patients’ PHI will be accessible in written, electronic, oral, or other visual or audio form, or otherwise make PHI accessible to the media, without prior written authorization from each individual who is or will be in the area or whose PHI otherwise will be accessible to the media.

Experts quoted in the most recent New York Times-Pro Publica report on this case said this ruling, along with the prospect of patient lawsuits, including by the New York family, now may halt ratings-seeking reality broadcasters’ incursions into hospitals with the institution’s assistance.

(Kudos, by the way, to Pro Publica for its continuing pursuit of reports on how caregivers violate patients’ privacy with impunity, including posting pictures of nursing home patients, naked or in compromising views.)

New York Med, though the hospital insisted it was designed to educate the public about the complexities of caregiving in a major academic medical center, shocked the widow of the accident patient. She said his face was blurred but his voice was distinctive and clearly recognizable. She had no clue her husband’s last moments had been recorded, and she learned of it only when she happened to see the show, to her huge consternation, in the middle of the night.

A craving for favorable PR

Hospital staff, notably the PR people who facilitated this arrangement, and the show itself displayed little regard for the patient and his privacy, according to an earlier Times-Pro Publica story. Instead, the hospital seemed focused on favorable and distinguishing publicity it would receive, with one executive telling a PR industry trade publication: “You can’t buy this kind of publicity, an eight-part series on a major broadcast network.” The show, which has largely pulled the material from public view, still callously promotes the episode, saying, watch as a “Dr. McDreamy-like young trauma surgeon, tries to save the day when a critically injured pedestrian struck by a vehicle is brought to the E.R.”

Star power, of course, played a key role in this high-rated but tacky show, which, among things, shopped among Manhattan hospitals for the most suitable tabloid-style cases to be filmed. Although they received no remuneration for their participation, institutions conceded that it was hard to turn down a share of the spotlight with Dr. Oz, who has come under increasing fire for moving further away from broadcasting based in the medical expertise he gained as a top heart surgeon and more toward populist and dubious material that wins ratings.

Just to be clear, the network involved with this show also has tried to toss up a smoke screen about its First Amendment rights to film situations of societal concern. Yes, there’s a real need for the press to act as a watchdog of American institutions, including those in health care and especially as hospitals and other facilities grow ever more rich and powerful.

But the civil justice system has provided abundant precedent that sick and injured patients aren’t actors nor props nor means for celebrities and institutions to garner more public attention and to enrich themselves. What happened to caregivers and hospitals worrying about the patient first?

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