Does Speaking Publicly About Patient Cases Violate Patient Privacy Laws?

Policy and legislation have a significant impact on healthcare. Some laws are looked at positively, like patient privacy laws, but HCPs feel certain laws have a negative effect on how they care for their patients. When HCPs speak out, they must balance making their argument, while also protecting patient privacy.

One Indiana physician ran into this exact circumstance when they were reprimanded by the Indiana Medical Licensing Board for speaking publicly about providing a medication abortion for a 10-year-old rape victim. They stated, “I think that it’s incredibly important for people to understand the real-world impacts of the laws of this country, about abortion or otherwise … it’s important for people to know what patients will have to go through because of legislation that is being passed.” The $3,000 fine and reprimand issued by the Indiana State Medical Licensing Board came after the state’s attorney general filed a complaint claiming the physician failed to abide by patient privacy laws among other claims. While the state medical board followed through with the reprimand and fine, they rejected the claim that patient privacy laws were violated.

This story begs the question, should physicians be speaking out about how policy affects patients, and if so, how do you discuss patient cases while still protecting patient privacy? We brought these questions to the Figure 1 community and, unsurprisingly, HCPs had a lot to say.

Here is what more than 700 HCPs had to say.

Should Physicians Speak Publicly About Patient Cases?

We asked the Figure 1 community if they thought physicians should speak publicly about their cases, even if patient privacy laws are followed. Notably, 77% of respondents said yes, physicians should speak about their cases publicly, 13% said no, and 9% remained unsure. 

Many respondents felt very strongly that if the need arises, physicians should speak publicly about their cases, so long as they are protecting patient privacy. One neurosurgery physician stated, “Trained medical professionals providing direct patient care are in the best position to make informed comments.” While another respondent shared, “It depends I guess on the need to speak out publicly about a health risk that will affect more people. I hope the doctor in question discussed this with the girl and parents first. But if they agree, and doctors agree that current lawmaking is creating dangerous precedents, then yes please do.” 

It seems many agree that physicians see first-hand the effects of policy and, so long as protecting the patient comes first, physicians have the best insight to share as to why policy affecting healthcare should be changed.

Did the Indiana Physician Do the Right Thing?

We asked the Figure 1 community if they thought the Indiana physician deserved to be reprimanded by the stated licensing board. The majority (84%) said no, they should not have been reprimanded, 10% said yes, and 6% said they weren’t sure. 

So, yes, most respondents agreed that this physician did the right thing by speaking out but, even though patient privacy laws were not breached, certain case details could have been spared. One respondent said, “I think you can speak out without affecting someone’s privacy. I can see why for the Indiana doctor, it got hairy. They mentioned the age and home state of the patient …” 

Overall Sentiments

While there is some debate over when HCPs should speak out, the majority of respondents agree that physicians have the right to, and when necessary, should speak out about their cases. One respondent seems to sum up the sentiments of everyone when they shared, “If the quality of the patient’s life is at stake in the situation doctors should advocate for the right thing. We are told do no harm. Can the body of a child handle a pregnancy without medical complications and if so, could she die? How do we practice if we do not share and speak of things that are harmful and a danger to all who may find themselves in such a situation …”

To any physicians who feel they need to speak out on behalf of their patients, know that your fellow HCPs support you. These discussions may help prevent future patients from having to endure the same circumstance.

Published July 17, 2023

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