Tales from the Practice of Medicine: Medical Ethics (Part III): Confidentiality

Yu Ling

PureInsight | February 21, 2005

[PureInsight.org] There is a Chinese idiom, "A 10,000-ton steamer may sink because of one slip of the tongue." It means saying something by accident can cause irreversible, colossal damage.

As a responsible medical doctor, one must not only learn medicine, but also learn people, human nature, and their minds. Should a medical doctor conduct himself in a slightest wrong way in his medical practice, he might cause unthinkable misery to his patients.

For example, during my medical practice I have repeatedly seen that many patients suffer from the consequences of medical doctors or the medical staff accidentally compromising the patient's right to confidentiality.

One time two nurses chatted with each other while reading a patient's medical chart, and they were completely oblivious to the fact that the patient was sitting near them. To them, it was as if the patient did not exist. One nurse said to the other nurse, "She has been trying get pregnant for a long time, but her husband had a vasectomy without telling her. Poor dear! Why couldn't her husband talk to her about it at home? How do we break the news to her?" Naturally, the patient overhead it, went home and questioned her husband. Her husband finally admitted that he already had vasectomy, and they had a huge fight. All their china and glassware were smashed to pieces.

Once a doctor left the room to get a phone call while he was in the middle of writing up a patient's medical chart. The patient's medical chart was left open on his desk. During this absence, another patient who was looking for a room with a water fountain entered the room by mistake and saw the medical chart on the desk. She saw it belonged to an AIDS patient who happened to be the husband of her colleague "Jane". She has never gotten along with "Jane" and now she found a perfect opportunity to disrupt her life. So she told everyone at work that "Jane's" husband had AIDS. You can easily imagine what happened next.

I know of another family tragedy that had occurred as a result of a pharmaceutical company's breaching a patient's confidentiality:

John and Nancy were engaged and living together. One day, Nancy came home and found a letter from a pharmaceutical company. She opened the letter out of curiosity, and the letter said:

"Dear John, we are writing you because we learned that you had contracted syphilis five years ago. After a lot of effort, we have developed a new drug against syphilis. You have been luckily chosen as one of the pilot users of our new drug. We are delighted to inform you that the drug will be absolutely free to you…"

Naturally, Nancy was filled with rage and feelings of betrayal. She packed her things in anger, loaded them into her car, and stormed off. When John arrived at home, he found it was as if a tornado had gone through their home. Things were scattered everywhere. Next he saw the letter from the indiscreet pharmaceutical company and a short note from Nancy that says, "The hell with you and the wedding!" John was absolutely dumbfounded. He did not understand why the pharmaceutical company would choose him as a tester of a new drug treating syphilis. After all, he did not have any history of venereal disease, let alone syphilis. But however did the pharmaceutical company get his name and address? A closer look at the envelope revealed that it was addressed to a man with almost the same name. Only their last names were spelled slightly differently. It was then John realized that the letter was sent to the previous owner of the house whose name was identical name to his. The pharmaceutical company did not know that the "luckily chosen" John had already moved and the current resident was "unluckily chosen" to be the victim of the indiscreet pharmaceutical company. In the end, John explained the mistake to his fiancée but the incident strained their relationship. In the end, they still broke off their engagement and split up.

There are a lot of patients at my clinic who work together in the same school, play on the same athletic team, or know each other personally, but they often don't tell each other their physical conditions or their medical history. Although everyone knows one's medical history should be kept private, some people always want to stick their nose into other people's private affairs and try to find out their coworkers or acquaintances' medical conditions to satisfy their curiosity. People who work in the medical field have to make very conscientious efforts to protect the patients' privacy.

For example, one of my patients saw her colleague walking out of my clinic. She tried to find out the reason of her colleague's visit. She asked, "She looks much better. What did she come in today for? " I saw through her intention and replied in a delicate manner. "Put yourself in her shoes. Would you like your doctor to share your health condition with another patient?"

Everyone who comes to a medical institution for the first time must sign a confidentiality agreement that stipulates the medical doctor must never share the patient's medical history with any person, organization, or institution without the written approval of the patient. There is only one exception - a physician can reveal the patient's intention to his family or police if he learns that the patient has the intention to commit suicide. This is because it is a physician's fundamental mission to be responsible for his patients' lives.

If you are a cultivator, you must already know that a cultivator who does not cultivate his speech will suffer from additional karma. If you are not a cultivator, please bear in mind that one is bound to have a slip of the tongue if he talks too much. A slip of the tongue may create irreversible disasters beyond your imagination. Please think twice before you break confidentiality.

Translated from: http://www.zhengjian.org/zj/articles/2004/7/9/28091.html

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