Consider the following scenario: The manager of an outpatient surgical unit shares patient information with a pharmaceutical representative to assist the representative in compiling a survey to expedite the FDA approval for a new drug to combat serious post-operative infections. Is the manager involved in an ethical violation? Why or why not?
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In the scenario described, the physician has violated the physicians’ code of ethics, and possibly the law, depending upon the state in which the scenario occurs. The question does not specify whether the doctor sought and attained the patient’s consent to have his or her medical information conveyed to a third party – in effect, to the pharmaceutical representative – but absent that consent, than ethical violation did occur. The American Medical Association, which serves as a repository of the medical profession code of ethics,
“Patients divulge information to their physicians only for purposes of diagnosis and treatment. If other uses are to be made of the information, patients must give their permission after being fully informed about the purpose of such disclosures. If permission is not obtained, physicians violate patient confidentiality by sharing specific and intimate information from patients’ records with commercial interests.” [Opinion 5.075]
While the intentions of the pharmaceutical company may be entirely meritorious, and may ultimately prove beneficial in the treatment of the patient whose medical records have been shared with that company, the conveyance of the patient’s medical information without his or her consent does constitute an ethical violation.
Pharmaceutical companies are vital to the nation, and the world’s well-being. They invest considerable financial resources in the research and development of new medications that aid in the relief of innumerable health problems. They are also, however, companies that are seeking, legitimately, to make a profit. Approval of a new drug by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can be a laborious task and take longer than physicians and manufacturers believe necessary. It is not, however, a legitimate practice on the part of physicians to share patient medical records, absent informed consent on the part of the patient, with those companies.
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