An extensive new report from Big Brother Watch (a UK privacy organization) documents hundreds of breaches of patient confidentiality by the UK's National Health Service. A press release on the report notes that the over 800 breaches of privacy included:
23 incidents of patient information being posted on social networking sites
91 incidents of NHS staff looking up details of colleagues
24 NHS Trusts saw confidential information stolen, lost or left behind by staff
These numbers are low, too, because 44 NHS trusts failed to respond to Big Brother Watch's Freedom of Information request and 55 Trusts refused to release all of the information requested.
I want to draw particular attention to the social networking site posts. A lot of physician groups, hospital units, etc., are using Facebook and similar sites to create a sense of community with and among their patients. Some physicians and nurses "friend" their patients, and others face "friend" requests from their patients or their families which they find difficult to turn down. Still others simply have their own social media sites on which they discuss their private and work lives. All of these uses of social media risk breaches of patient confidentiality; there are also risks of offending or shocking patients or their families with posted personal or work-related information. Patients routinely Google their caregivers. Medical groups, wards, clinics and hospitals should all be thinking about the limits of social media use, and developing policies and guidance for caregivers, patients and families.