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Database Nation by Simson Garfinkel

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Privacy Is Your Doctor's Responsibility

A placard on the wall of my local hospital says "Please Respect Patient Confidentiality." And in a very important way, this sign says it all. Hospitals and other medical facilities need to rely on the ability of their employees to hold patient secrets. Doctors, nurses, clerks, and even janitors all see highly charged information. A hospital that tried to shield its employees from all sensitive patient information would quickly cease to function.

Fortunately, in most cases, this trust seems well placed. I have never met a doctor or a healthcare professional who did not seriously undertake their responsibility for patient confidentiality. Patient privacy is at the very core of the healthcare profession. It goes all the way back to Ancient Greece and the Hippocratic Oath, which says, in part: "All that may come to my knowledge in the exercise of my profession or in daily commerce with men, which ought not to be spread abroad, I will keep secret and will never reveal."

What complicates the confidentiality process is the fact that between 50 and 75 people need access to a patient's chart during a typical hospital visit. Keeping a secret requires everybody's cooperation: revealing it requires just one bad apple. Many hospitals hire temporary administrative workers who have little or no training in medical ethics. Other healthcare facilities are actively downsizing, creating employees who have a grudge against their employer. As the cases of Nydia ...

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