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How Private are your records?

Charlotte King

Charlotte King

Private Practice is a TV show spin-off of the popular medical drama Grey’s Anatomy.  The show follows the lives of doctors at Oceanside Health & Wellness Group in Los Angeles, CA.  Charlotte King is the Chief of Staff at St. Ambrose Hospital which is adjacent to Oceanside Health & Wellness Group.  The doctors face many ethical dilemmas associated with their patients, but Charlotte is forced to make many tough decisions on behalf of the hospital.

The most recent storyline this season centers on Charlotte and her husband Cooper.  Cooper’s son’s mom is experiencing signs of neurological damage when she faints at the hospital.  This information is brought to the attention of Charlotte by one of the doctors who must decide how to proceed.  She learns that the damage could be caused by a malignant tumor and Charlotte is pressured by the other doctors to find out more information about the patient.  Charlotte is in a dilemma because the tumor could be life threatening and this knowledge would drastically affect Cooper’s life with his son.  She talks to the patient who refuses to go through any further testing or reveal any more information about her past medical history.  It is clear that the patient does not want Charlotte to tell Cooper. The only way to gain more information is by having the patient’s confident files sent from her previous hospital to St. Ambrose Hospital for emergency medical reasons.  Charlotte decides to make the call and tells the other hospital that the patient is in a coma and is unable to release the files herself.

There is an ethical issue with how Charlotte proceeded with this dilemma.  She used her authority as Chief of Staff to lie to another hospital and disregard hospital-patient confidentiality.  She wants to help the patient by learning more about her condition so she can use her expertise to find treatments.  However, the patient was aware of her own condition and has the right for her medical health to remain private knowledge.  Although in the show I sympathize with Charlotte, I feel like this sort of thing happens often (at least in shows such as Greys Anatomy and Private Practice…this is similar to Meredith’s ethical dilemma in Jenna’s post).  So is it unethical for these doctors to breach confidentiality? The obvious answer is yes.  But is it also circumstantial?  Is it more of a gray area than black and white, right or wrong?




3 thoughts on “How Private are your records?

  1. I feel that doctors get a sort of “special pass” on this issue. In most of these cases, the doctor has no outside relationship or stake in the patient – here, obviously, not so much. But a doctor’s best and only interest is in the best health of his/her patient, and so breaching confidentiality in order to save a life is viewed as okay. After all, the doctor is not doing this for personal gain, and he or she is simply trying to save a life. This is why doctors/therapists/etc are legally required to breach confidentiality records should a patient indicate suicidal actions. However, although I think Charlotte’s intentions in this case were pure, she should have had someone else deal with the case. Ultimately I believe another doctor would have reached the same conclusion/decision, but Charlotte’s conflict of interest here makes her and the hospital legally liable.

    Posted by Caitlin H. | March 6, 2012, 11:50 pm
  2. I almost wrote about this exact episode. Private Practice is another show that I watch every week. Again, this is a tough ethical dilemma because she is only trying to help out the patient, but she is using her power to gain records that she doesn’t have permission to access. I know what the “right” thing is to do — she shouldn’t have done it. However, it did end up working for her this time and ultimately I think she made a good decision. However, had she gotten caught, she could have lost her medical license. Worth it? Probably not.

    Posted by Jenna | March 7, 2012, 4:27 pm
  3. This is a great ethical dilemma to bring up that is extremely difficult to determine a right course of action. In the case of all medical doctors, they are faced with difficult ethical decisions every single day. In Charlotte’s instance, I would absolutely follow the same course of action that. Doctors are trained to make these types of decisions and in my opinion want the best outcome for the patient and act accordingly. The doctors are said to be in the “business” of saving lives and in this sense Charlotte, again, made the correct decision. It stays bring a fog over the ethics of medical decisions that I don’t know I will ever be able to grasp.

    Posted by Patrick | March 7, 2012, 6:44 pm

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