Medicolegal Issues

Is the smartphone recording while the patient is under 
anesthesia?

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Be careful what you say, it may come back 
to haunt you

In this Article

  • The patient’s claims in this case
  • Recordings and the law


 

References

CASE: Physician defames sedated patient

Our case takes us to the Commonwealth of Virginia. A male patient preparing to undergo a colonoscopy was concerned that, because of grogginess brought on by anesthesia, he might misunderstand postprocedure instructions or advice. He, therefore, turned his cell phone’s record function “on” and put it with his clothes. His clothes were put in a plastic bag, which ended up under the table with him in the operating room.

Following the procedure, as his wife drove him home, the patient replayed the instructions on the cell phone and realized that it had recorded the entire procedure. It quickly became apparent that the medical personnel had engaged in a series of inappropriate and insulting comments at the patient’s expense.

The anesthesiologist, talking to the now-unconscious patient, said, “after five minutes of talking to you in pre-op, I wanted to punch you in the face.” The patient had reported he was taking medication for a mild penile rash. The anesthesiologist warned an assistant not to touch it or “you might get syphilis on your arm or something,” but then noted, “it’s probably tuberculosis of the penis, so you’ll be all right.” There was further mocking of the patient, including a question of whether he was homosexual.

The anesthesiologist and gastroenterologist wanted to avoid talking to the patient after the procedure, and the gastroenterologist instructed an assistant to lie to the patient and convince the patient that the gastroenterologist had already spoken to him following the colonoscopy but, “you just don’t remember it.” In addition, the anesthesiologist announced that she was going to mark “hemorrhoids” on the patient’s chart, which she knew was a 
false diagnosis.

The patient, who is identified only by 
initials, is an attorney.1 Of course, the smartphone was “good documentation” of what came out of what the health care team said.

The lawsuit

The patient (now plaintiff) claimed that he was verbally brutalized and suffered anxiety, embarrassment, and loss of sleep for 
several months.

On the first day of trial, the gastroenterologist was dismissed from the case. The trial went on against the anesthesiologist and the anesthesia practice.

What’s the verdict?

The patient was awarded $500,000, as follows:

  • $100,000 for defamation, ($50,000 each for the syphilis and tuberculosis comments),
  • $200,000 for medical malpractice
  • $200,000 in punitive damages (including $50,000 the jury found that the anesthesia practice should pay).

Caveat. The above facts about this case come from the plaintiff’s complaint1 and various professional commentaries and news sources.2–5 Such sources are not always reliable, so they may not describe accurately all of the relevant events and statements.

Neither of the authors of this column attended the trial or heard the testimony presented. For the purposes of discussing the issues below, however, we treat as true the facts stated above. In addition, some of the legal claims in this case are uncertain. It is entirely possible that an appeal will be made and accepted, and some or all of the damages could be reduced by the trial court or an appellate court. The jury award, therefore, is not necessarily the last word.

Medicolegal takeaways 
from this case

This case raises a number of professional, ethical, and legal issues. Most fundamentally, the health care team is always expected to prioritize the patient’s best interest. Respect for the patient is an essential element of that.

Behaviors such as those reported about these physicians are “absolutely not to engage in any time,” stated President of the American Society of Anesthesiologists 
John Absentein, MD.6 A former president of the Academy of Anesthesiology, 
Kathryn McGoldrick, MD, added some common sense advice that such discussions are “not only offensive but frankly stupid.” As she notes, “we can never be certain that our patients are asleep and wouldn’t have recall.”7

The actions of the physicians also may violate ethical obligations. The very first principle of medical ethics is that the physician shall provide care “with compassion and respect for human dignity and rights.”8

The legal claims included defamation, infliction of emotional distress, privacy (related to medical records), and malpractice. We will take a very brief look at each of those causes of action and then say a word about punitive damages (which the jury awarded in this case).

It is important to remember that state law, rather than federal, is providing the legal principles on which these claims were decided. Federal law might provide some relevant principles in such cases (for example, the First Amendment freedom of speech limits the state defamation rules), but that is the exception. State law is the rule.

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