Reality TV controversy reignites patient-privacy debate

The recent controversy surrounding a reality TV show's depiction of a man's death in a New York hospital has sparked a debate about the nature of patients' privacy rights while being treated in emergency departments.

The firestorm began with a recent ProPublica article, also published in the New York Times, that featured the story of Mark Chanko, who died in the emergency room at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital in April 2011 after being struck by a sanitation truck outside his home in Manhattan. Chanko's family was outraged to find that his treatment and death were recorded without their permission and shown on an episode of "NY Med," a reality show starring Dr. Mehmet Oz. While Chanko's face was blurred, his family easily recognized him on TV, with his wife telling ProPublica that "I saw my husband die before my eyes."

While New York regulators did not impose any sanctions on the hospital for the incident, and the Chankos' lawsuit against ABC and NewYork-Presbyterian was dismissed in November, the story continues to resonate with industry leaders. One such example is that of Harvard Medical School Dean Jeffrey Flier, who tweeted about his indignation regarding the Chankos' story only to discover that ABC has also been filming at the facility he presides over, Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), the Boston Globe reported.

Both MGH and Brigham and Women's, Boston's top two teaching hospitals, are set to be featured in ABC's upcoming documentary-style series called "Golden Hour," which depicts patients in ERs, operating rooms and intensive care units, according to the Globe. Upon investigating the matter, Flier told the newspaper he was reassured that "this [filming] could be done in a way that is entirely beneficial to health education and not violate anybody's rights."

The contract the Boston hospitals have with ABC states that patients must give consent before their stories are aired and have 30 days after the last filming of a patient to change their minds and opt out, the Globe reported.

But not everyone is as reassured that filming often-incapacitated patients in life-or-death situations, even with identity-concealing measures or consent, represents an ethical way to conduct care.

"This is just ethically inexcusable. You have people taping in ERs, and yeah, they blurred out the face … but they played the voice," Art Caplan, a medical ethicist, recently told Boston Public Radio in regard to the Chankos' story. "I mean, really? This [is] voyeurism, and we feed it when we watch it."

Similarly, Mark Chanko's son, Eric Chanko, who himself is a physician, told ProPublica that the hospital and the "NY Med" producers "basically did everything that you're taught in medical school not to do."

"NY Med" has stirred up controversy regarding patient privacy rights before, with a NewYork-Presbyterian nurse fired in July after she reposted a doctor's Instagram photo of an empty trauma room with the caption with the caption "#Man vs 6 train," after treating a man hit by a subway train, FierceHealthcare has reported. That incident spurred debate about hospitals' patient privacy policies, and highlighted the alarming frequency of healthcare professionals using social media to disclose patient information.

To learn more:
- read the ProPublica article
- read the Boston Globe article
- read/listen to the Boston Public Radio report