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Medical Blogs May Threaten Patient Privacy

More than half revealed data for easy IDs, lacked basic ethical standards, study finds

THURSDAY, Aug. 7 (HealthDay News) -- Blogs written by medical professionals may pose a threat to patient privacy, because the authors of the blogs may inadvertently reveal patient information, says a U.S. study that's the first to examine the issue.

The researchers analyzed the contents of 271 medical blogs and found that 56.8 percent contained enough information to reveal the author's identity.

Although obvious violations of patient privacy are rare, supposedly anonymous medical bloggers who provide information about their location, subspecialty or other personal details may reveal their identity to blog readers, noted Dr. Tara Lagu, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Clinical Scholar, and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania.

In some cases, patients described in medical blogs may be able to identify themselves, the researchers said. For example, three of the blogs in the study had recognizable photos of patients, including one with an extensive description of the patient and links to photos.

The researchers also found that some of the medical blogs allowed advertisements, and some promoted health -care products within the blog text. None of the bloggers who described products within the text adhered to medical ethics standards of providing information on conflicts of interest, or whether payment was received for promotion of the products.

The study was published online in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

"While many medical blogs provide valuable information to the public, are respectful in tone and are written anonymously, others pose a threat to patient privacy and have the potential to threaten the integrity of the medical profession," Lagu said in a journal news release.

"Unfortunately, no professional organization has taken the initiative to provide guidance on this issue. As the number of medical blogs grows, professional organizations, medical educators, and the blogging community must address the challenge of this new medium by setting guidelines and standards for what is appropriate," Lagu said.

More information

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has more about patient privacy.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: Journal of General Internal Medicinenews release, July 23, 2008

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