Kike Calvo/AP

Shedding Privacy to Share Health Information Online

April 21, 2009 05:30 PM
by Lindsey Chapman
In an era of strict medical privacy, some people are sharing their health issues and even procedures online to help others.

Tweeting During Surgery

A hospital in Milwaukee recently became the first facility in the nation to broadcast a double knee replacement surgery on Twitter, according to television station WSAW.

(The surgeons worked while assistants manned the Twitter account.)

“I think it's a unique opportunity to explore innovative ways to communicate with patients and alleviative fears they may have about joint-replacement surgery,” said Dr. Joel Wallskog, an orthopedic surgeon at Milwaukee’s Aurora Health Care who participated in the surgery, according to Good Morning America.
“The patient was well informed and excited to participate in this,” and the hospital did what it could to protect the individual’s privacy, Dr. Jeffrey Smith explained.

Deb Borchert wasn’t afraid for her surgery to be discussed online either. Borchert’s uterus was removed earlier this month by robotic surgery.

Doctors asked her whether she would mind if updates about her surgery were submitted on Twitter. She said, “I think that's a great idea, because if there's another woman out there who has that option [of robotic surgery] and it helps her to go this way, that's a great opportunity,” Good Morning America reported. 

Even the celebrity world has seen surgery shown online. Years ago, Carnie Wilson decided her gastric bypass surgery could be transmitted live on the Web while millions watched, reported.

For Wilson, showing her surgery was a way to “reach out to people.” An atypical childhood and difficulties with her father, Beach Boy Brian Wilson, led to several issues for her, including an obesity problem.

“I knew that by doing that I was going to help people, and now, knowing what an epidemic obesity is—thank God that I did it,” she said in an interview with Oprah Radio.

These events come during a time in which the United States has very strict laws regarding medical privacy. In 1996 the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, was enacted. Rules governing a patient’s privacy went into effect  It’s the reason most doctor’s offices don’t use your full name anymore when calling you in the waiting room, and why people get privacy notices from their doctors.

The privacy rules, for most providers, took effect in 2003. The penalties for violating a patient’s confidentiality can be severe: when it was learned that dozens of UCLA medical center employees had improperly viewed celebrities’ medical records, findingDulcinea reported that individuals could face fines of $1,000 to $250,000, and the medical center could have faced fines of up to $250,000.

Analysis: How helpful is sharing medical information online?

“The days of meeting in a library room with 10 others” as a means of sharing health information and support are dwindling as the public searches for and shares medical information online, according to the Lawrence Journal-World & News of Kansas. People use the Web as a means of comfort, connecting with others in similar circumstances and as a way to learn more about specific health issues.

Aside from the benefits the public may find in tracking a person’s surgery or health condition online, Dr. Steven Kalkanis said the medical field can improve through social networking options as well, according to Louisville, Ky., television station WHAS 11.

“It’s a generation skilled in instant interactive, interpersonal communication and feedback,” he told the station. To stay relevant and effective, medical education, he said, “needs to keep pace with this new standard.”

Reference: Finding support for health issues online


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