Trendspotter: Patient Privacy and the Media

January 27, 2011

“How I helped save folk rock legend Jimmy Buffett” That’s the headline in today’s Daily Telegraph, an Australian newspaper, featuring a very detailed account by one of its health columnists, Dr. Gordian Fulde, who is also the chief of a local emergency department.

“How I helped save folk rock legend Jimmy Buffett”

That’s the headline in today’s Daily Telegraph, an Australian newspaper, featuring a very detailed account by one of its health columnists, Dr. Gordian Fulde, who is also the chief of a local emergency department.

Fulde describes a Sydney concert on Tuesday where the leader of the “parrotheads” had just completed his set and went to shake a fan’s hand, when it appears he walked directly off the stage and took a nasty fall. (Watch the video here.)

I’ll let you read Fulde’s account, but he essentially rushed to the front of the stage, told security who he was, and then detailed the level of care Buffett received following the fall, from the extent of his injuries to the CT scan he received at the hospital.

He talks about visiting Buffett the following day and getting a “thank you” from the legendary singer for his quick action. I wonder however, if Fulde then said, “Hey Jimmy, do you mind if I write this up for a column in the local newspaper?”

I’m all for doctors sharing their advise, personal experiences, and training with the general public. I think it is great that local doctors appear on their local television newscasts to take viewers questions, write for local newspapers, and blog on their own site - or sites like ours.

But I wonder when too much information about your patient is too much. Should Fulde have shared his account of Buffett’s condition? Did it cross a patient confidentiality line? (To my knowledge, there is no HIPAA equivalent in Australia)

Here in the U.S., from the recent shooting in Arizona to Tiger Woods’ hospitalization last year, we have all read about hospital staff sneaking an unauthorized peek at noted patients, and paying the price by losing their jobs. Whether these folks would have shared what they learned, either with colleagues or even the media, is unknown.

In Woods’ case, some medical staff did “leak” information to the media, some correct and some incorrect about his condition and what may or may not have happened to him (whether he was actually hit with one of his own golf clubs remains to be clear).

When doctors are scheduled to talk with the media - again, take the recent event in Arizona and the repeated interviews with University of Arizona neurosurgeon Michael LeMole - they know what to say and what not to say about their patient’s condition and care. It is the patient’s right not to have the entire world know about their medical status; it is a personal issue.

While Buffett may be grateful for Fulde’s care, I wonder if he is as gracious about having his medical care shared with everyone.