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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