Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Celebrities, Privacy, Punishment & Mercy

A New York Times article “Hospital Workers Punished for Peeking at Clooney File” reports that 27 employees of Palisades Medical Center in New Jersey were suspended for a month without pay for accessing actor George Clooney’s medical records when he was hospitalized after a motorcycle accident.

This is a no-brainer ethical violation. Medical records are private. Only the patient and those directly involved in his care should access them. Hospitals are required to train employees in privacy expectations. Assuming that this was done the penalty is severe, but not outside the realm of fairness.

The union called the penalties “an overreaction” and defended the 7 nurses it represents by saying that although they looked at the records, they did not divulge the contents. This “defense” overlooks the fact that whether or not the nurses tipped off the press, their reading the record was in itself a serious violation of professionalism.

I admire Clooney’s gracious response: “While I very much believe in a patient’s right to privacy, I would hope that this could be settled without suspending medical workers.” He emphasizes the value that is at stake but proposes mercy. If I were the hospital CEO I would undo the suspensions if (a) each individual publicly apologizes to Clooney, (b) is identified as having violated core values and (c) uses their own experience and learning as part of orientation for new employees and other forms of education about the importance of privacy.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

This blog has a nice Shakespearean flavor. The quality of mercy isn't strained. It's a pleasure to see how humane values and plain English can be applied to a difficult breach of medical ethics.

Gerald said...

Uninvited intrusion of any sort violates the sanctity every individual expects of trusted institutions like hospitals. When laws or rules are established by a government or an organization there immediately develops a kind of stiffness about their application. Mr. Clooney's response is Solomonic and could perhaps serve as a template for a revised hospital regulation: Where a violation of patient record confidentiality has been identified, whether material damage has occurred or not, allow the victim to specify the "sentence" to be imposed on the guilty. This feels like a wonderfully symmetrical implementation of Kant's categorical imperative. Bravo, Mr. Clooney!