Is BuzzFeed Enabling Doctors to Violate Patient Confidentiality?

Jager Weatherby on 1 Aug 2014 at 4:45pm

We here at RealSelf pride ourselves on maintaining a community that is deeply authentic, accepting, and resistant to labels and disparagement — values that we expect ourselves, our users, and our doctors to uphold. So, as you might imagine, we were completely in shock when Buzzfeed posted a roundup of quotes supposedly from doctors, revealing stories of patients which the site was quick to call “dumb.”

Buzzfeed Article

Honestly, is this what going to the doctor has come to? Regardless of your opinion of the conversations that allegedly occurred, a doctor’s office is first and foremost supposed to be a safe space. Patients should feel free to ask (dare we say it?) “dumb” questions without fear of judgement… especially in such an open forum as the World Wide Web.

Aside from violating the trust of their patients, we’re pretty sure these doctors are also in breach of a little thing called “patient-physician confidentiality.” While not all state and federal laws agree on what this means, the American Medical Association’s Code of Ethics states that: "The information disclosed to a physician by a patient should be held in confidence. The patient should feel free to make a full disclosure of information to the physician in order that the physician may most effectively provide needed services. The patient should be able to make this disclosure with the knowledge that the physician will respect the confidential nature of the communication.”

While one might be able to argue that these doctors didn’t reveal the identity of their patients, we feel strongly that they haven’t been following AMA’s rules about the patient-physician relationship“The relationship between patient and physician is based on trust and gives rise to physicians’ ethical obligations to place patients’ welfare above their own self-interest and above obligations to other groups.” We feel fairly certain that AMA wouldn’t support these doctors ridiculing their patients on the internet, all for the sake of a few quick laughs.

Of course it has to be noted that these quotes were pulled from a thread on Reddit, which brings a great deal of skepticism to many of the stories. However, given the fact that it’s received nearly 23,000 comments, the probability is high that at least a few (if not a lot) of these doctors are actually who they say they are.

How would you feel if you were scrolling through Buzzfeed on a lazy Thursday afternoon only to see that your doctor had outed an interaction that may have been very embarrassing for you? We doubt you’d ever feel comfortable going to that doctor again, and we’re sure the nasty comments on the piece — “Idiots, idiots everywhere” — would only make you feel worse about the situation. (Speaking of comments, some nurses and other doctors have openly contributed to the discussion by adding some of their own stories to the comments section of the article.)

Buzzfeed Comments

This brings us to Buzzfeed itself, which we feel crossed the line by posting this piece. They seem to have no problem name-calling and laughing at another’s expense — and doing so over issues that are supposed to be personal. Looking at the other kinds of questions posed by this user on Reddit, we wouldn’t be surprised if it was a Buzzfeed employee deliberately stirring up controversy in an attempt to get content.

If you ask us, you can file these stories under the category of “online bullying,” a widespread problem with increasingly disastrous results. However, these instances typically occur among children and teens, not professional adults who are supposed to be respected and trusted in their fields.

When it comes to your relationship with your doctor, the internet has certainly muddied the waters. It can be used to research and connect with a physician (much like it’s used here on RealSelf), but it also presents a whole new set of challenges. “Physicians should be cognizant of standards of patient privacy and confidentiality that must be maintained in all environments, including online,” explains AMA.

Given the anonymous nature of Reddit, there’s no real way to know which doctors said what or about which patients. But does that make it any less of a violation? When you schedule an appointment with your doctor, do you expect your interaction to be held in confidence, or do you feel comfortable with the idea that your private conversation could be revealed online (even if your name is not mentioned)? Would you go even further as to hide important information from your physician out of fear of this kind of judgement?

In the world of medicine and social media, how do you know who you can trust?

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Comments (6)

In just the short time I have been a member on RealSelf it is obvious that this is a community of women empowering each other through the sharing of knowledge and experiences as we maneuver our way through the often complicated web of medical decisions. Us gals are far stronger than we think and it is in sharing our questions and concerns with each other that we create a strong, loving, sincere support system. The medical community needs to know that we are not coming into their offices alone but armed with a strong backing of our community of RealSelf sisters.
Just thought I should add that there are a number of men who post on RealSelf (such as ABSCAPE, who makes the good point that people seem to see these types of surgery as only for women).
Good point Dayna - noted. I have only been in one subject area - breast implant removal.
Great article, Jager. Blaming an uneducated person for their lack of education is completely ineffective and also downright mean.

Instead of laughing we should be asking: How were these patients raised that they were never taught about pregnancy, STDs... and so on? Why didn't these doctors help these patients to understand what was happening to their bodies, instead of shaming them?

That's exactly why some people are afraid to ask "stupid" questions: Because of a fear of actually being called stupid and becoming the butt of a joke.

Really disappointing behaviour by the docs, perpetuated by social media. Good on RealSelf for calling attention to this issue.
Ditto!! That is exactly how a lot of STD's are spread.. Due to the lack of knowledge on how these diseases are contracted and spread. Unfortunately, a lot of parents nowadays fail to and/or have not developed the relationship with their children to have the "birds and the bees" talk. Thus, adolescent learn what they do from non-reputable sources such as friends, tv, social media, etc. If doctors can't be a dependable source of information, deeming, in my opinion, valid questions (as no question is a stupid question) as idiocy, then no wonder why STD's are so prevalent amongst society. Next time the outcome may not be so great.. As seeing these doctor's comments online may shun some/many away from future healthcare, feeling that their private matters may be exposed. Next time, instead of possibly controlling the spread of a very contagious disease, such as herpes, these doctors take the chance of indirectly aiding in the spreading of diseases. Without proper healthcare and with the lack of education, the patient may then self diagnose/assume that he actually does have poison ivy (no matter how "dumb" that may sound). Then there you have it... Somehow his girlfriend got poison ivy on her vajayjay..... IJS
I agree- you took the words right out of my mouth. Empathy is sure lacking and nobody should feel stupid about something they don't understand, especially youth. It's a shame. 

Thanks for posting this Jager, well done!