Doctors and staff at a Pennsylvania hospital are under fire after what news reports described as a “ton” of employees crowded into an operating room to take cell-phone photos of a patient being treated for a foreign object lodged in his or her genitals, PennLive reported this week.
University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Bedford Memorial Hospital has been cited by the state’s Department of Health for the incident, which took place last December while the patient was under anesthesia.
A hospital employee initially told state investigators that a personal phone was used to document the case—“to use for future medical lectures”—because the operating-room camera was broken.
However, the health department determined that photos were taken on several phones, that some employees had shown their spouses or other people at the hospital, and that the operating-room camera was indeed working. One witness told investigators that “there were so many people [in the operating room] it looked like a cheerleader-type pyramid.”
The hospital alerted the health department when an employee complained about images circulating around the building in January. Bedford Memorial was cited for failing to protect a patient’s confidentiality and privacy, allowing people not involved in a patient’s care into the operating room, and allowing people to use personal devices to take photos of a patient.
As a result of the incident, two staff members were suspended and one was replaced. The hospital also alerted the patient who had been photographed, disciplined an unspecified number of other staff members, and required all surgical staff to attend a meeting on privacy and confidentiality.
Hopefully, those actions help prevent similar incidents from happening in the future. But unfortunately, doctors behaving inappropriately at the expense of a patient is more common than it should be.
In a 2015 editorial in the Annals of Internal Medicine, the journal’s editors addressed this issue. “Although we wish it were otherwise,” they wrote, “most physicians at some point find themselves in the midst of situations where a colleague acts in a manner that is disrespectful to a patient.”
The editorial was accompanied by an anonymous essay from a physician who recalled two instances of sexual or racist behavior by doctors, directed at patients while they were under anesthesia. One instance had been told secondhand, but one the author was present for—and felt too embarrassed to speak out at the time.
This isn’t the first reported case of offensive and inappropriate photography, either. After actress Joan Rivers died from complications during surgery in 2014, rumors surfaced that her doctor had snapped a selfie with her while she was unconscious.
In a 2008 JAMA study, 17% of internal medicine residents admitted to making fun of a patient, sometimes while he or she was under anesthesia. There have also been reports of doctors with inappropriate—and often publicly available—social media profiles, with posts that include private information about patients.
Of course, medical professionals can also act completely unprofessional even when their patients are wide awake, with offensive or insensitive comments that do exactly the opposite of making us feel like we’re in good hands.
Still, these cases are the exceptions, not the rule—and there are plenty of great doctors out there who put patients’ needs and feelings (and their privacy and other rights) first. There are also procedures and regulations in place at hospitals and medical facilities to prevent these episodes from occurring, and to respond to them if they do.
“By shining a light on this dark side of the profession, we emphasize to physicians young and old that this behavior is unacceptable,” wrote the authors of the 2015 editorial. “We should not only refrain from personally acting in such a manner but also call out our colleagues who do.”
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And while there may not be much patients themselves can do in many of these situations (like in the middle of a surgery, for example), it’s important to feel comfortable speaking up anytime something feels strange, says Health’s medical editor Roshini Rajapaksa, MD.
“Don’t fall into that old mentality that whatever the doctor says goes,” says Dr. Rajapaksa. “Trust your instincts, and if something seems off or feels creepy, say something.” Most hospitals have a patient advocate who will hear concerns and complaints, she says, “and you can always report unusual things to the state medical board.”