Service of Watching Your Back on Social Media

October 31st, 2013

Categories: Ethics, Medical Care, Property, Prudence, Social Media

spy with magnifying glass

Friends and relatives post all matter of information on Facebook and Twitter thinking it will never adversely bounce back at them. I hope it never does.

Tourists at Eiffel towerThink of the contradictions. On the one hand we’re horrified that the government is spying on us—with good reason. Yet many hand scofflaws buckets of ammunition by  posting photos of family members [kidnapping?], sharing intimate information [will anyone be home when you’re at a funeral?] and political views [potentially losing clients or a job] without a thought of the future.

We purchase security systems and ask a neighbor to empty the mailbox so would-be robbers bypass the house as we simultaneously post photos of ourselves in front of the Eiffel Tower and the family waving from a gondola in Venice.


Art Caplan, PhD.

Art Caplan, PhD.

The head of the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center and contributor to NBC News, Art Caplan, Ph.D., told of a young man who was removed from a liver transplant list because he posted a transplant-damming photo of himself on Twitter. In “Is your doctor spying on your tweets? Social media raises medical privacy questions” he wrote: “There he was for all the world to see, surrounded by booze, hoisting a cold one in a picture he himself had posted,” wrote Caplan. The photo was seen by a person on the transplants team who sent it to a psychiatrist who was about to approve him for the list.

Caplan noted that no liver transplant team would accept a person who was drinking alcohol.  Result of this photo, according to Caplan, “in all likelihood a death sentence.”

With his ethics hat on Caplan asked: “Should this doctor or any health care professional have checked the transplant candidate out on social media?” He continued: “But even if ethical restrictions existed, it is probably fair to assume that a lot of doctors and those who work with them, many who grew up with Facebook and Twitter and the like, will be tempted to do so.

tennis player“Take for example, you say your back really hurts and you are disabled — let’s take a peek at your Facebook page to see if you manage to hit the tennis court, the jogging path or the golf links. Promise to be abstinent due to your venereal disease—what are you doing on dating sites on Craigslist? Swear to stay away from fatty foods and high calorie treats—why did your doctor just read a review by you of barbecue joints on Yelp or Zagat?”

He continued: “I think the transplant candidate had the right to know that he tweeted himself right out of a shot at a liver transplant. And you need to realize that information you put up on social media sites may wind up being used by your doctor, hospital, psychologist, school nurse or drug counselor.”

He concluded what we know—the Internet is the Wild West, without rules. “If they [doctor and patient] are going to continue to trust one another then we need to recalculate existing notions of medical privacy and confidentiality to fit an Internet world where there is not much of either.”

Do you think that it’s fair game for a doctor to research a patient’s social media sites to check up on them? Do you believe that there will ever be rules impacting social media? What’s the point of lying to your doctor anyway?

Wild west

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7 Responses to “Service of Watching Your Back on Social Media”

  1. Simon Carr Said:

    My views on this subject are mightily colored by a childhood spent in a family which valued its privacy, went out of its way to keep its name out of the newspapers, and lived much of the time either in totalitarian countries or under circumstances where secrets had to be kept from prying eyes. In one home we even had one room, regularly vetted by intelligence engineers, which they deemed secure enough from listening devices to permit normal conversation.

    For me, joining an internet social network is exposure I do not need. I would sooner lie down in a bed of tarantulas.

    I have no more problem with doctors doing investigative research to improve the likely success of a medical procedure than I do with the police using racial profiling, or like practices in fighting crime.

    Likewise, as a researcher, I believe that anything anyone publishes– in the broadest meaning of the word — about himself is fair game. (Whether I use the information I acquire is another matter. Sometimes I don’t because it would be hurtful to do so.)

    If you say, or write something, or give photographs or anything else to somebody in person or over the telephone or the internet, you are letting the world know, and you have nobody to blame but yourself. If you value your privacy, keep it to yourself.

    To answer your question about rules possibly impacting the internet: There may well be lots of rules one day, but they will be difficult to enforce.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Sounds as though you had a fascinating and intriguing childhood. Because WWII so impacted my parents, I was warned, when traveling abroad, not to take an envelope or package to send for someone in another country long before Homeland Security or airport personnel queried passengers about such interactions. I was also cautioned about signing my name to petitions or letting someone I don’t well know use my telephone–all things most people today would think are nuts.

    There’s nothing like social media to help a business get out the word. When used effectively and as a communications tool and as part of other outreach, it can help spread the word about wonderful things in a flash and at little cost.

    I can’t imagine a soul would be interested in my personal life nor do I care to share much of it with everyone I know so I don’t lose sleep over the potential negative impact of social media for myself. However I am concerned for others. Imagine how the parents of the young man who lost his chance at a transplant must feel.

  3. JBS Said:

    I don’t participate in social media because I want to keep my life private. It may not be very exciting, but it is mine. On the other hand, I know both of my children and one of my grandchildren have Facebook pages … and I repeatedly warn them not to post anything that could cost them a job or be embarrassing in any way.

    If my doctor is looking for my Facebook page or Twitter, he’s out of luck, but frankly, I see my personal life as none of his business unless it affects my health. In that case, I let him know. There is no point in lying to your doctor if it has any impact on your health.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I agree, but as I started to respond I thought of insurance companies. Someone claims they can’t walk and are caught playing tennis–one of Dr. Caplan’s examples–the patient is going to hear from more than his/her doctor!

    I imagine if you’re an addict and you claim something hurts in order to get hold of more pain meds you’d lie to the doctor. Short of that, I agree it makes no sense. If you don’t do what’s indicated and wonder why a broken bone you’re not supposed to put weight on doesn’t heal because you’ve been too active or a cough due to smoking doesn’t stop because you continue to puff, how can a doctor help you if you lie?

  5. Hank Goldman Said:

    When all the social media began, it was so simple, so easy, now you really have to be afraid… You might say the wrong thing… Or say it in the wrong way! Sender beware!……

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:


    You are right. Just as politicians have been caught whispering something nasty amplified by a live microphone they thought was off, a wrong word could up and bite you someday and you don’t know from where–stopping a bank loan, a business deal, approval by a condo or coop board, entrance to college or university….. It’s not just medical issues at stake.

  7. Lucrezia Said:

    Anyone posting information that may come back to bite later on deserves no sympathy. The doctor, or any other snoop is not to blame, only the fool who declares open season on himself…

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