Doctor-patient confidentiality is the bedrock of privacy in the medical community. It’s especially important to psychiatrists, who may know some of the deepest, most personal secrets and emotional issues their patients struggle with. Even divulging the first names of their clients without a release is an enormous violation of trust. But, apparently, nobody bothered to tip off Facebook, which is outing a psychiatrist’s patients to each other.
Fusion has the story of Lisa, a psychiatrist who specializes in a very specific field of practice, and who only uses Facebook to manage her social calendar. She doesn’t friend her patients, or even look at their profiles. The site, however, has somehow managed to connect Lisa’s name with her patients, likely through her cell phone number (which they all have in their phones), and has started recommended patients friend each other. This means that in theory, her patients can find out everything about each other: Full names, family members, and anything they share on the social network. Lisa first noticed the problem when one of her patients, someone who is very different from the rest of her clientele, alerted her to the fact that Facebook was suddenly recommending he add several elderly strangers to his friends list. “He laughed and said, ‘I don’t know any of these people who showed up on my list— I’m guessing they see you,’” Lisa told Fusion. “He showed me the list of friend recommendations, and I recognized some of my patients.”
Another one of her female patients had a friend recommendation pop up for a fellow patient she recognized from the office’s elevator. Suddenly, she knew the other patient’s full name along with all their Facebook profile information.
“It’s a massive privacy fail,” said Lisa. “I have patients with HIV, people that have attempted suicide and women in coercive and violent relationships.”
Aside from the confidentiality issues noted above — health status, abusive relationships — the leak is also troubling because Lisa lives in a relatively small area, which creates even more problems. And while it may not be taboo to visit a mental health professional in some areas, it’s important to remember the kind of stigma that people seeking help for their psychiatric issues face. Furthermore, there are many places in the world where receiving psychiatric help is considered a mark against you. Outing someone in this way, even unintentionally, can have severe consequences on a person’s everyday life.
For safety, psychiatrists should have a separate private line to protect patients, and patients should explain the issue to their psychiatrist and work out a solution. Facebook wouldn’t confirm how this leak occurred, but one thing is certain: If this is happening to Lisa, it’s likely happening to other psychiatrists and doctors as well.