Graphic surgery photos Spectrum doctors posted online may violate privacy laws

Target 8

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A Michigan attorney said pictures of body parts removed from patients and posted on Instagram could violate federal privacy laws.

The pictures were taken in Spectrum Health operating rooms in Grand Rapids and posted by a group of resident doctors on its public Instagram page.

“It demonstrates profoundly poor judgment on the part of these young physicians, profoundly poor,” said Jules Olsman, who’s practiced injury and medical malpractice law for more than 40 years.

“It’s being done for almost entertainment … You need authorization from the patient, and I assure you there’s no authorization from the patients to have this type of amusement at their expense,” Olsman added.

Spectrum Health sent Target 8 a statement Monday that said it was “shocked and dismayed” by the incident, has already taken “corrective action” and is “actively and comprehensively investigating this unfortunate incident.”

The health care giant declined to say whether it had taken any disciplinary action against the doctors who made the posts.

The Instagram page was not sponsored by Spectrum Health but by a group of resident physicians who work there.

In one of the pictures posted Feb. 28 on Instagram, a doctor was pointing to a length of fibrous tissue he’s holding up, and it appeared the patient from whom it was extracted was still lying on the operating table.

In the accompanying caption, the poster wrote “Longest one wins!”

Another person commented, “Yes that’s a record!”

In the second offending picture, posted Thursday, a doctor was holding a reproductive organ that had just been removed in a gynecologic cancer procedure.

That caption read, “The other game we play in the OR is guess that weight. It applies to much more than just babies. As always, ‘Price is Right’ rules apply so if you go over then you’re out!'”

The page was taken down Friday, 16 minutes after Target 8 messaged the group with questions.

Olsman said even though the posts do not show the patients’ names nor faces, they could still be used to identify them.

“It provides a means of extrapolating that information out,” Olsman said. “Just by knowing somebody went to the hospital that day, knowing what they were going to have done and then seeing that and saying, ‘Whoa, I know that person.'”

Olsman said it could be argued that the pictures constitute the patients’ “medical records,” which would put the health system in violation of a federal health care privacy laws, known as HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996.

HIPAA requires that Spectrum to notify the impacted patients and report the incident to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

While rare, federal authorities can fine hospitals anywhere from $25,000 to $1.5 million for federal privacy breaches.

But it’s much more common for the government to require health systems to take corrective action with no fines attached.

The page, which was not officially connected to Spectrum Health, was hosted by 35 resident physicians who described themselves on the Instagram page as a “tight-knit family” of people from across the country training in obstetrics and gynecology at Grand Rapids’ Spectrum Health.

The full statement Spectrum Health sent Target 8:

At Spectrum Health, the trust patients place in us and the confidentiality of their medical information are paramount. Equally important are our values and our core behaviors. We strive to treat everyone with compassion, dignity and respect.

We were shocked and dismayed when we learned that surgical images were posted on an Instagram account not officially connected to Spectrum Health that was used by a group of medical residents. This unacceptable behavior does not in any way reflect our organization, the outstanding professionalism of our medical staff or our resident physicians-in-training.

We are already taking steps for corrective action. The Instagram account, which appears to be isolated to a small group of individuals, has been closed. We are actively and comprehensively investigating this unfortunate incident. These posts do not follow our code of excellence, our values or our expectations for team member behavior. We deeply value the trust that our patients have in us and we work to strengthen this bond every day.

Spectrum Health

The Instagram page was created in October, presumably when the group of physicians began its residency in Grand Rapids.

Most of the 45 posts were typical Instagram fare until late February when the first picture surfaced of the fibrous tissue in the operating room.

“It’s just absolutely unacceptable,” Olsman said.

But the attorney also said it’s not surprising, given the digital mindset of a generation that’s been raised with constant, up-to-the-minute internet communication.

Members of the millennial generation are currently 25 to 38 years old — the likely age range of the group of doctors-in-training.

“I would say it’s probably a millennials issue because the millennials have grown up on this social media, and it’s just part of their DNA if you will, with regard to the way they think,” explained Olsman, who noted that doctors often take pictures to document conditions for medical charts, but never post them publicly.

“What you’re looking at is a new frontier where rules are going to have to be formulated to deal with conduct that normally you would think people would understand they can’t do. Period,” Olsman said.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Growing Grand Rapids and Beyond

More Growing Grand Rapids and beyond

Top Stories On WOODTV.com

Know something newsworthy? Report It!

News 8 Links