Free Speech for All?

May 1, 2007

As you might guess, I’m in favor of the First Amendment to the Constitution. Without it, we could not speak our minds without fear of persecution. Artists and photographers could not freely explore subjects and display their work. Writers could not opine and publish without fear of censorship. The People could not criticize the Government and not be incarcerated. Free speech is a cornerstone of our society. It’s necessary and it must be protected. However, we also may be exposed to opinions that make us feel uncomfortable. We may even be repulsed by something we read, hear or see. So it goes in a society that protects with law its peoples’ ability to speak and share information.

As you might guess, I’m in favor of the First Amendment to the Constitution. Without it, we could not speak our minds without fear of persecution. Artists and photographers could not freely explore subjects and display their work. Writers could not opine and publish without fear of censorship. The People could not criticize the Government and not be incarcerated. Free speech is a cornerstone of our society. It’s necessary and it must be protected. However, we also may be exposed to opinions that make us feel uncomfortable. We may even be repulsed by something we read, hear or see. So it goes in a society that protects with law its peoples’ ability to speak and share information.

Well, physicians are people too. It’s a pithy statement, but it bears saying, as the censor mongers have turned their attention to physicians blogs. I mean really. Should a society that permits the sale of musical lyrics that promote unthinkable acts, also censor the free exchange of information between doctors in forums specifically designed for that purpose? If I turn on The View, aren’t I ultimately responsible for the opinions to which I may be exposed?

For the first time since the invention of the golf course, physicians have a location where they can share their personal thoughts, feelings and experiences with like-minded professionals. What’s wrong with that? Plenty, if you fear doctors will reveal your private information on the Internet, where it’s fodder for the world’s gristmill. Should we regulate that activity in the name of security? The physician’s code of ethics already disallows the revealing of private information that may identify and potentially harm patients. HIPAA adds legislation. We trust physicians with our health. Can we not also trust them with our privacy? I think we can. Besides, if my trust is misplaced and I can prove that I’ve been damaged, I can seek recompense in the courts. Do I need more protection than that? I don’t think so.

The benefits of physicians blogs is widespread and growing. Hundreds exist all over the world on all medical specialties from oncology to neonatology to emergency first responders. Some deal with specific topics, such as patient care, while others simply provide a forum for open discussions among healthcare providers. Some enable potential patients to openly communicate with physicians, get advice from specialists, or simply lurk and learn from reading the posts. Others require participants to prove they are healthcare providers and register before entering. Return visitors must log in with a unique identifier each time they re-enter the site. In fact, there are blogs on most disciplines related to healthcare, such as marketing and diagnosis. In general, the information shared on these blogs is more sensitive and therefore protected by the login process. The same process and procedures govern and protect our private financial information on bank Web sites. Why is it not good enough for physicians blogs?

Clearly, doctors exchanging information with other doctors to gain knowledge and awareness is a boon to healthcare that decreases the potential for error, while increasing patient safety. Is there potential for abuse? Of course there is. However, the free exchange of information over the Internet has revolutionized industries all over the world. Healthcare is no different. It profoundly affects each of our lives, and yet, technologically, in many ways, it has lagged behind, due partly to sloth and partly to fear.

Let’s not let fear keep it there.

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