Do video cameras violate patient privacy?

Video cameras in hospitals can monitor at-risk patients and ensure doctors take proper safety and sanitary measures--but their use may compromise patient privacy, according to a New York Times opinion piece.

Video surveillance in hospitals has several pros and cons that can come down to providers' discretion, writes Tim Lahey, chairman of the bioethics committee at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Bedford, N.H.

Greenwich Hospital in Connecticut uses video to monitor patients at risk of falling, while Nebraska Medical Center uses unrecorded video surveillance to watch high-risk patients, such as those on suicide watch, Lahey says.  

However, video surveillance remains controversial. Lahey recounts that the House Committee on Veterans Affairs condemned doctors' decision to secretly monitor the family of a brain-damaged patient at a Tampa, Fla., VA hospital.

The debate touched Lahey's own hospital when neonatal intensive care unit nurses suspected parents were abusing their premature child after the baby returned to the emergency room within a week of discharge, according to the piece.

Nurses observed the baby only experience breathing problems when he was alone with his mother, never with a nurse. One nurse suggested putting a small camera in the room to try and figure out what was happening, while another nurse worried about betraying patient trust, Lahey explains

Hospital administrators decided that if confronting the parents didn't work, they would deem it acceptable to secretly monitor the baby's room to ensure his safety. However, a few days later, the baby's mother confessed to neglect and holding a pillow over her child's face to keep him from going home--no camera necessary.

But Lahey says hospitals should use hidden cameras as a last resort, making it clear to patients that they use covert monitoring systems only in rare and unusual circumstances, and only with the approval of hospitals' ethics committees.

To learn more:
- here's the opinion piece