Monday, September 26, 2011

Medical Blogging and Patient Privacy

Running a medical blog has become much more challenging over the years. It has always been understood by medical and health care bloggers that you should never post information that violates a patient’s privacy. In other words, do not post patient’s names, photographs of patients, or any other information that can specifically be used to identify them. However, changing patient demographics (e.g., gender, age) and limiting the information discussed such that the patient would not be directly identifiable by others was a way to still discuss important lessons learned from specific cases via social media.

But recently, things have changed. For example, I am aware of specific recent policy implemented by some health care organizations that any employee who has a social media account (e.g., Facebook, Twitter) or a blog cannot post information related to a specific patient case even if the patient is the only person who may be able to identify him/herself based on the information posted. One way around this is getting consent from the patient, but sometimes you may not think to write about a specific situation months of years later after reflecting on it.

In those cases, retrospectively obtaining consent is unrealistic and can seem unprofessional to the atient. For example, imagine making this kind of phone call:

“Hi, Mr. Jones, this is Dr. Smith. I saw you at General Hospital a few years ago. Yes, yes, I’m doing good. How about you? Good. So anyway, I was wondering if you could give me permission to write about your case on a blog I run.” 

One of the medical blogs I like to follow is KevinMD. One of the main features is that it shows a collection of the top medical and healthcare blog postings from the internet each day. I was perusing some of these entries last night and I was interested to see that there are still many doctors posting about specific patient cases. These are good posts. Excellent posts. Posts to learn from.

But I fear we are increasingly going to reach a point where these types of posts decline in frequency, either for fear of litigation for arguably violating patient privacy (even if the patient is the only person who can identify him/herself) or for fear of termination by an employer. Personally, I’ve decided to take the safe route and not report on any specific patient cases from my current place of employment. But I am curious what other medical and healthcare bloggers think about this and how they are handling (or plan to handle) this potential limitation in blog posting at present or in the near future.

When considering these recent restrictions, I think back with a smile to the days where you could open an old medical text and see pictures documenting specific medical conditions in patients, full face and all.

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