Privacy rights for the dying? Not on ABC

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177851075 (1)When I was 17 years old I had every place kicker s nightmare: ingrown toenails. Worse was that I ignored the problem for too long and had to have them professionally removed. My pediatrician referred me to a local podiatrist and I left school early one day to get my toes clipped. When I got there, the physician gave me some unfortunate news: I was too young, by a few months, to sign the informed consent papers myself and needed a parent present to sign. So I couldn t get a medicinal pedicure without my mom taking a day off from work.

The lesson we learned was that consent laws are strict.

So with all the hoops we had to jump through for a 20 minute procedure, it makes me wonder: why did the producers of the ABC s NY Med think they would get away with showing the death of a patient without receiving any consent?

Pro Publica has the story of the New York City widow who was watching the program in August of 2012 when she noticed the man being examined by physicians was in fact her late husband. The episode shows her husband being rushed into the emergency room after he was hit by a truck and then the physicians pronouncing his death.

To their credit, the show did blur-out his face. However, to his wife and family it was all too clear who it was; and none of them had given permission to show his final moments.

The family sued and you would have expected this to be a slam dunk win for them; the laws that govern consent are fairly strict on sharing private patient information. In short you cannot share any details of a patient s medical history without consent from the patient or a designee (i.e. spouse).

However an appellate judge ruled in favor of the show who cited their first amendment rights on the grounds that it is considered a news production and the hospital, also named in the suit, cited a loss of patient privacy rights upon death. Court proceedings aside, it s hard to argue that NY Med and NY-Presbyterian acted ethically towards this patient.

The situation shines yet another negative light on the cash cow that is the blending of medicine and TV. Some might argue that medical TV shows like NY Med, the Doctors and Grey s Anatomy inspire people to pursue medical and science based careers which is of vital importance to our society. A recent report stated that by 2025 we will have 90,000 fewer doctors than we need.

However, these shows also send a lot of mixed messages to their viewers. Whether it is Dr. Oz publicizing the conversion therapy or NY Med relying on the real pain of patients and their families to increase ratings, medicine and popular media can be a dangerous combination. But there is hope for change. The American Medical Association has finally begun to condemn physicians who act unethically in the media and is expected to release ethical guidelines for physicians who wish to seek this type of attention. In particular what is encouraging about these guidelines is that they are expected to encourage physicians to act in the media based solely on evidence based medicine, a phrase we here at the American Council on Science and Health love to hear.