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Doctor Blogs Raise Concerns About Patient Privacy

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Doctor Blogs Raise Concerns About Patient Privacy

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Doctor Blogs Raise Concerns About Patient Privacy

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Medical blogs have drawn back the curtain on the inner workings of the medical profession. Online readers can learn about the latest medical gadgets, read physicians' views on health care issues, even get a peek at the inner thoughts of surgeons. Despite their attraction, though, these blogs have raised concerns about privacy issues on the Web.

Deirdre Kennedy of member station KQED reports.

DEIRDRE KENNEDY: Take a stroll through any of the 120,000 health care blogs online and you can find opinions on everything from popular pharmaceuticals to celebrity skin problems. There are no precise figures on how many physician blogs are out there, but they're easy to find.

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KENNEDY: There's EM Physician, which recounts a horror story about gangsters with severe burns. There's Aggravated DocSurg, which admits that operations are fun to do. And there's Radiology Picture of the Day.

One doctor who draws about 12,000 readers a day is New Hampshire internist Dr. Kevin Pho. His blog, Kevin, M.D., offers a doctor's eye view on medical issues that appeal to both his peers and the public.

Dr. KEVIN PHO (Internist; Blogger): I talk a lot about primary care because there's a myriad of problems that I as a primary care physician face that I want to communicate to the public. I talk about malpractice and how physicians practice defensive medicine to avoid malpractice lawsuits. Pretty much every hot health topic that comes up.

KENNEDY: Pho's blog has turned him into something of a celebrity in the blogosphere.

Blogging can be a great marketing tool for raising a physician's profile and attracting new patients, says health care marketing expert Fard Johnmar.

Mr. FARD JOHNMAR: Patients who see physicians who blog realize that these physicians understand, I think implicitly, that patients are hungry for information, and that by providing this information sometimes they will become much more trusted by patients because they believe that they are going to be much more responsive.

KENNEDY: But not all physician blogs seem geared towards marketing. In fact, just the opposite is the case of some extremely candid blogs, like White Coat Rants, Cancer Doc, and M.D.O.D., which bills itself as Random Thoughts from a Few Cantankerous American Physicians. These are more like diaries in which doctors vent about reimbursement rates, difficult cases and what a, quote, "bummer" it is to have so many patients die.

Dr. Debra Peel, a psychiatrist and founder of Patient Privacy Rights, thinks physician blogs often step too close to the limits of patient privacy.

Dr. DEBRA PEEL (Patient Privacy Rights): The problem with physicians blogging about patients is absolutely the danger that that person will be able to identify themselves, or that others that know them will be able to identify them. That's just horrendous.

KENNEDY: Peel's group is concerned that information about a patient's case can be traced back to the individual and adversely affect their employment, their health insurance, or other aspects of their life.

Certainly if a doctor violates patients' privacy there could be legal consequences. Under the federal HIPAA laws, physicians could face fines, even jail time. And in some states, patients can file a civil lawsuit if they believe a doctor has violated their privacy. Still, for psychoanalyst Dr. Debra Peel, it's not just privacy issues that trouble her.

Dr. PEEL: If you are unhappy with the people that you're supposed to be serving and taking care of, you probably need therapy, you know. You don't need to be venting your frustrations in a public manner like that. I mean, that's very inappropriate and unprofessional.

Dr. ROBERT WACHTER (Professor of Medicine; Blogger): You might say we as doctors should never be talking about experiences with our patients online or in books or in articles.

KENNEDY: Dr. Robert Wachter is author of a blog called Wachter's World. As a leading expert on patient safety, he writes extensively about medical mistakes.

He says it's important for doctors to be able to share about cases, as long as they change the facts substantially. But he says that's one reason patients shouldn't take all of the information on blogs at face value.

Dr. WACHTER: We do learn from each other as we talk about stories and the way we dealt with certain complex situation. And yes, it means that from a patient's standpoint or even from another doctor's standpoint you can't really know exactly what facts have been changed in order to preserve patient privacy.

KENNEDY: Wachter says taken for what they are - unedited opinions, and in some cases entertainment - blogs can give readers some useful insight into the good, the bad, and the ugly of the medical profession.

For NPR News, I'm Deirdre Kennedy.

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