April 16, 2024

Charlie Sheen’s reluctant bioethics script

Hollywood star blackmailed over HIV status

The real lives of Hollywood stars often have just as much bioethical interest as their movies. This week Charlie Sheen, a popular actor in film and television with a colourful personal life, admitted that he was HIV positive on the Today show. He was diagnosed about four years ago and the disease is under control.

But this is not just another ho-hum personal tragedy. Apart from his self-destructive drug and alcohol abuse, compulsive promiscuity is part of Sheen’s public image and questions were immediately raised about whether he had infected one of his wives or many sex partners without informing them of his HIV status. Knowingly infecting a partner is a criminal offence in California. Prosecution is rare because a high bar has been set for the standard of proof but Sheen could be sued civilly for negligence, emotional distress or sexual battery.

The 50-year-old actor went public to protect himself against blackmailers who had extorted US$4 million from him over the past four years. “I release myself from this prison today,” he said.  “I have paid those people — not that many — but enough to where it has depleted the future. Enough to bring it into the millions.”

The bioethical take-away? The extreme importance of protecting medical record privacy.

According to the Washington Post, “opportunistic criminals are beginning to resort to similar schemes targeted at anyone who might potentially be hurt or embarrassed if others had access to information about their mental illness, nose job, abortion, or the fact that they’re going through bottles of Viagra”.

Now that doctors and health care institutions are digitising all of their medical records, hackers are having a field day. The WaPo says:  

The Identity Theft Report Center reported in January that breaches in the medical/health care industry topped its list of breaches in 2014 with 42.5 percent of the 783 incidents they tracked. The 333 medical/health care incidents affected 8,277,991 records and took place at small health care clinics as well as a diverse group of large organizations, including Novo Nordisk, Tennessee’s State Insurance Plan, Touchstone Medical Imaging, the University of California Davis Health System and the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of Colorado.

Charlie Sheen’s tormenters obtained their information the old-fashioned way and few people are as rich or famous as he is. But his admission is an example of the down side of integrating medicine and information technology. 

Creative commons
medical privacy