The dean of one of America’s top medical schools was stunned.
Jeffrey Flier, who presides over Harvard Medical School, had just finished reading a story about the televised death of a man in a New York emergency room, a death aired without the family’s permission.
“How could this be allowed to happen?” the incredulous dean recently tweeted from @jflier.
Four minutes later came a reply tweet from Dr. Gerard Doherty, chief of surgery at Boston Medical Center. “The same group is filming a trauma series at your place (MGH) and ours (BMC) right now. On balance — good public education.”
The exchange highlights the roiling debate over privacy rights, with TV crews capturing the drama and pathos in hospital emergency rooms amid the most vulnerable patients. The issue is especially timely as network news crews are camped in three of Boston’s big teaching hospitals filming a show expected to air later this year.
A production crew from ABC News, which filmed Mark Chanko’s 2011 death at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital without the Chanko family’s knowledge, was the focus of the article by ProPublica that so troubled Flier. Although Chanko was not identified by name on the show and his face was blurred out, his traumatized widow recognized her husband and sued ABC and the hospital, saying permission to show her husband had not been sought. The lawsuit was dismissed in November by a New York court, which ruled that no rules had been broken.
Though Flier had not realized it, ABC News has been in Boston since October, bringing cameras to gurneys and bedsides in emergency departments at Harvard’s two premier teaching hospitals, Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women’s, in addition to Boston Medical Center.
The network is planning a documentary-style series, tentatively called “Golden Hour,” chronicling the care of patients in the hospitals’ emergency rooms, operating rooms, and intensive care units. Mass. General and the Brigham were also the setting for ABC’s “Boston Med,” a 2010 series that featured patients, families, and hospital staff.
Flier remembers watching and enjoying “Boston Med,’’ and acknowledged in an interview this week that he had not given much thought at the time to patient privacy and ethical concerns. “I just assumed they were taken care of,” he said.
Now, he is taking a closer look. Flier said that after reading the ProPublica article, he spoke with the president of Partners HealthCare, the system that includes Mass. General and Brigham, and with the director of clinical ethics at Harvard Medical School.
After those discussions, Flier said he was reassured, and has “every expectation,” that the hospitals have strong privacy and ethics policies in place to protect patients. “This [filming] could be done in a way that is entirely beneficial to health education and not violate anybody’s rights,” he said.
But some medical ethicists are not convinced.
“There is a question of whether filming may affect the care that a person receives,” said Michelle Mello, a professor at Stanford Law School and Stanford University School of Medicine. “Having cameras chase after your gurney after being hit by a garbage truck may add to a patient’s distress.”
Some people might believe that a patient’s care could be improved because “the doctor knows he is literally under the lens,” Mello said. “Or maybe it provokes showmanship, doing things for the patient that are not necessarily beneficial.”
All three Boston hospitals signed separate but identical contracts with ABC News that would require consent from patients before their stories could be aired, in essence preventing a situation similar to the events that happened in New York, said Brigham spokeswoman Erin McDonough.
“No patient, no family member story will be shown on air if they do not have express written consent from the patient or patient’s family,” McDonough said.
It is unclear how the Boston hospitals’ contracts with ABC compare to the pact the network signed with NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. Linda Kamateh, a NewYork-Presbyterian spokeswoman, declined to comment, citing pending litigation. The Chanko family has appealed the dismissal of their lawsuit.
The contracts with the Boston hospitals allow patients to change their minds and withdraw consent during filming and within 30 days after the last filming of a patient by ABC, McDonough said. That has happened at least three times since October, she said.
It is not clear what would happen if patients changed their minds after that 30-day window. ABC News executive producer Terence Wrong declined a request for an interview. ABC News released a statement saying the network is proud of its medical programs, which it said have inspired some viewers to “pursue medical professions, to seek treatment they wouldn’t have known about or been too frightened to pursue, or to become organ donors after seeing depictions of successful transplants.”
The ABC contracts with the Boston hospitals allow staff to ask that filming be stopped at any time if they feel the situation is inappropriate, said Mass. General spokeswoman Peggy Slasman.
The hospital contracts are similar to ones signed with ABC News in 2009, during filming of “Boston Med,” and no substantial changes have been made in light of the controversy in New York, she said.
“We really debated this long and hard,” Slasman said. “We also considered this part of our education mission. We want people to know what goes on in academic medical centers.”