Ethics and Common Sense: The Dangers of “Private” Chatrooms

I had an interesting conversation the other day with an old friend about a Facebook chatroom that entertained only audiologists talking about things that they would not share in a public forum.  Things like peculiar or difficult patients, office problems, and other issues that, shall we say, are either inappropriate or just plain nasty.  My friend and I decided that, while these sorts of conversations are interesting and sometimes may be informative, they are inappropriate in any public setting.  Some of the topics are dangerous as well as insulting.  Most of these issues should not be discussed at all except in rare circumstances.

Hey, you say, a closed forum on the web is not public and we all have the right of “free speech” and can say what we want as long as we don’t divulge critical identifying patient information.  Not so fast, compadres.  See if you can come up with a good counter argument or justifying reasons if a patient or other interested person were to look into your chatroom.  Like trying to take a peacock onto an airplane as a “support animal”, when common sense fails, regulations and ethics should rise to fill the gap. 

Speaking as one who has had private emails “discovered” in a couple of litigated matters, I have come to conclude that there are fewer “private” places than one would think.  And, certainly, any place on the web is not nearly as private as one would like. Recall that the DNC, some credit score companies, several retailers, Facebook, and even the FBI, NSA, and other government security agencies have had their privacy exposed.  With that kind of threat, what would make anyone think that “chatroom” postings are all that undiscoverable?

Social media has given great powers to individuals who wish to promote their private thoughts, their political views, their joyous undertakings, and evidently, their criticisms, jests or rumors about others.  I am not an attorney, but it doesn’t take much legal experience to arrive at an opinion that some of this activity might be labeled as inappropriate opinion or even slander.  While it may be a small thing in most of the media postings, these types of activities may constitute more than that when posted by a “professional” on any type of website—public or private.  Beyond violating at least the spirit of HIPAA, the expressions in public media may also constitute a misdemeanor or felony when the brunt of criticism or humor involves even an unnamed patient.  It certainly is not professional and that in itself would seem to make it unethical.

Students and co-workers have commented that the best parts of professional meetings were the informal discussions that took place outside the presentations and classrooms.  That’s probably still true. Professional discussion among colleagues is one of the best ways to learn.  However, one of the first things professional colleagues should realize is that with professional status comes professional responsibility. There are rules, regulations, and boundaries that should be obvious and without need to itemize.

Finally, most do not need to be reminded that for every benefit, there is a cost. That is, with the benefits of additional clinical and professional autonomy and added professional recognition that was sought (and is being achieved) comes the cost of increased personal and professional responsibilities.  If this chatroom or similar situations still exist, it would be wise of those involved to engage in thoughtful reconsideration.

About Mike Metz

Mike Metz, PhD, has been a practicing audiologist for over 45 years, having taught in several university settings and, in partnership with Bob Sandlin, provided continuing education for audiology and dispensing in California. Mike owned and operated a private practice in Southern California for over 30 years. He has been professionally active in such areas as electric response testing, hearing conservation, hearing aid dispensing, and legal/ethical issues. He continues to practice in a limited manner in Irvine, California.