October 1, 2022

Privacy vs safety: surveillance in hospitals

Concern is mounting about widespread surveillance of patients and staff in US hospitals.

Concern is mounting about widespread surveillance of patients and staff in US hospitals. In an article published in this New York Times, US bioethicist Tim Lahey wrote of the “proliferation” of surveillance, ranging from the monitoring of fragile elderly patients to the recording of staff washrooms to ensure patients are washing their hands.

Lahey recounted various controversial cases of surveillance in hospitals, including the installation of secret security cameras in the nurse locker rooms of a Los Angeles hospital in 2004. In a hospital where Lahey chairs the bioethics committee there was spirited debate over whether to install a video camera in the room of an infant suspected of being routinely abused by his mother.

In the US video surveillance is legal except where patients have a valid expectation of privacy, such as in bathrooms and locker rooms. Where there is reason for surveillance within patient’s rooms, hospital ethics committees need to balance their commitment to patient privacy against the need to ensure the safety of the vulnerable.

“Hidden cameras should be a last resort”, Lahey argues. “Hospitals should notify patients that covert video monitoring may be used in unusual circumstances, and only with the oversight of a hospital ethics committee.”

Xavier Symons
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