A young man reportedly had plastic surgery to reduce the size of his tongue, because, his over-size-tongue almost suffocated his girlfriends during kissing sessions. Several TV stations reported this bizarre news and ran shots of a young man sticking his tongue out of his mouth. Everyone laughed at this rather amusing and entertaining news story. Little did they know that these news reports may have entailed a serious breach of physician-patient confidentiality.
TV viewers frequently see reports of such supposedly humorous or outrageous medical procedures and problems. Not long ago there was a story about a man who had his tongue bitten off by his girlfriend while the two were French kissing. Then there was the story of the man who shoved a bowling pin up his rectum. Very few of us stop to think about where the media digs out such stories.
On a few occasions at least, physicians have been known to be the source of information. For example, the plastic surgeon of Gloria Chu (朱婉清) publicly listed all of Chu's facial features that have undergone plastic surgery -- one-by-one [Editor's note: Chu, the former chairwoman of the Central Broadcasting System, was questioned last month about an alleged case of embezzlement and later fled to the US]. In other less egregious cases, physicians have been suspected -- with reason -- of tipping off the media.
Two important issues must be addressed about the reporting of such stories. First, medical professionals, including physicians and nurses, owe their patients strict confidence. Unless otherwise authorized by the patients, they are obliged to keep quiet about medical histories and procedures. In fact, unless compelled by the court, physicians and nurses are not allowed to release such information during court testimony either.
What we reveal to our physicians is sensitive, personal and private. Physician-patient confidence is no less important than attorney-client privilege. Without such trust, no one would feel safe about seeking medical treatment and examination. The sanctity of the confidence can in no event be compromised.
The second imperative issue is patients' frequent lack of awareness of the duty owed to them by their doctors. Many of them do not even realize that their physicians are not allowed to release any part of their medical histories without their informed consent. Without being aware of their right to say "no," they cooperate with the media by exhibiting or talking about their unusual health conditions in front of the camera. Although their faces are in most cases not revealed, it is still questionable whether they would have consented had they been fully informed of their rights.
Patients need to be educated about their rights. Who better to educate them than the physicians? Medical professionals should get into the habit of informing their patients of the duty of confidentiality owed to them and their right to refuse public disclosure of their medical conditions.
A lack of respect for physician-patient confidence has resulted in real tragedies, as well as some hearty laughter on the part of TV viewers. A wife was almost divorced by her husband, because while she was in hospital for a miscarriage a nurse told her -- in front of her in-laws -- "You should be especially careful, since you've had two abortions in the past."
Next time we get a good kick out of news coverage of some poor soul's medical condition, we might stop to think that it may one day be us being laughed at. With that in mind, it may not be so funny after all.
Amy Wu is a member of the state bars of California and New York.
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