Are TV doctors entertainers, journalists or doctors? In a way the question doesn’t matter: if they are doctors, then they are obligated to follow medical ethics and the standards of their profession at all times, no matter what else they may be taking compensation for. This is why “Dr. Oz” is ducking the issue when he tries to avoid accountability for pushing quack remedies on his TV show (if it ducks like a quack…) by arguing that he isn’t practicing medicine, but engaging in entertainment. He’s still a doctor, every second of his life, once he takes that oath.
CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta has largely steered clear of ethical issues in his tenure as the network’s medical expert. Not entirely, however; for example, in 2009, he was prominently mentioned as a possible Surgeon General, and was in discussions with the White House while continuing his reporting on the air, raising real and potential conflict of interest concerns. The most recent controversy is more serious.
Following the devastating earthquake in Nepal, CNN crew filmed Gupta, on-site in his role as chief medical correspondent, as he performed emergency brain surgery on an eight-year-old girl and resuscitated another victim of the quake on a helicopter using a cardiac thump. This was not the first time Gupta practiced medicine on a patient in front of the camera. He treated a two-year-old boy on assignment in the Middle East, and examined patients on camera after the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
In doing so, Gupta violates both medical and journalism ethics. As a doctor, he is obligated to protect client confidentiality. He may not show the procedures being performed on them without their informed consent, and in a foreign setting under emergency conditions, informed consent by patients is impossible. In the U.S., doing what Gupta did in Nepal on camera would be against the law. That means it is unethical…anywhere. American doctors do not escape the obligation to practice medicine ethically as defined by American ethics rules, regulations and laws simply by escaping U.S. jurisdiction and enforcement. [ NOTE: This last statement has been added as clarification to the original post. I should also note that this is my position. There is no formal positions on whether American doctors can ethically engage in practices abroad that would be illegal in the U.S., nor would I expect there to be.] As a journalist, meanwhile, he is required not to interfere with the story he is covering. Performing medical procedures on camera is becoming the story. Worse, it exploits injured victim for drama, sensationalism and ratings.
Tom Linden, a professor of medical journalism at the University of North Carolina, has proposed that new ethics guidelines should be drawn up for reporter-doctors. He has argued in the journal Electronic News that while physician-journalists like Gupta should not shirk their medical duty to save lives, a doctor-reporter should also never feature his patient in a television report, or even ask permission to do so. That’s exactly right, but a rule shouldn’t be necessary. Current medical and journalistic ethics standards already make that the ethical course.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta has just chosen to ignore those standards, that’s all.
Facts: The Guardian