Expectations of Privacy and Private Medical Information

According to attorney and privacy law specialist, Ronald B. Standler, “Privacy is the expectation that confidential personal information disclosed in a private place will not be disclosed to third parties, when that disclosure would cause either embarrassment or emotional distress to a person of reasonable sensitivities” (Standler, 1997). Another theorist, Ruth Gavison, defines privacy as “the limitation of others’ access to an individual with three key elements: secrecy, anonymity, and solitude.” Secrecy or confidentiality deals with the limits of sharing knowledge of oneself. Anonymity deals with unwanted attention solitude refers to being apart from others (Spinello, 2003). Basically, we want to protect the integrity of who we are, what we do, and where we do it. Regardless of our definition, the right of privacy usually concerns individuals who are in a place reasonably expected to be private. Information that is public record, or voluntarily disclosed in a public place, is not protected.

The open architecture of the modern phenomenon that we call the Internet raises very unique ethical concerns regarding privacy. Information is sent effortlessly over this vast global network without boundaries. Personal information may pass through many different servers on the way to a final destination. There are virtually no online activities or services that guarantee absolute privacy. It is quite easy to be lulled into thinking your activity is private when actually many of these computer systems can capture and store this personal information and actually monitor your online activity (Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, 2006). The Net’s underlying architecture is designed to share information and not to conceal or protect it. Even though it is possible to develop an adequate level of security, with an acceptable risk level, it is at enormous cost and considerable time.

Medical records are among the most personal forms of information about an individual and may contain medical history, lifestyle details (such as smoking or participation in high-risk sports), test results, medications, allergies, operations and procedures, genetic testing, and participation in research projects.The protection of this private medical information falls under the area of medical ethics. The realm of medical ethics is to analyze and resolve ethical dilemmas that arise in medical practice and biomedical research. Medical ethics is guided by strict principles or standards that address: Autonomy, Beneficence, Nonmaleficence, Fidelity, and Justice (Spinello, 2003). The principle of Autonomy includes a person’s right to be fully informed of all pertinent information related to his/her healthcare. A discussion of medical ethical principles and patient rights leads us to further discuss legislation designed to maintain and protect these cherished rights.


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Clifford, R. (1999) Confidentiality of records and managed care legal and ethical issues.

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Diversified Radiology of Colorado (2002) History: HIPAA general information.

Mehlman, M. J. (1999) Emerging issues: the privacy of medical records.

MSNBC (2004) FDA approves computer chip for humans.

Parmet, W. E. (2002) Public health protection and privacy of medical records.

Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (2006) Internet privacy resources.

Spinello, R. A. (2003) CyberEthics: Morality and law in cyberspace. Jones and Bartlett Publishers, Sudbury, MA

Standler, R. B. (1997) Privacy law in the USA.
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