Category Archives: medical ethics

Quit Beating A Dead Horse (and wasting money): The Day of the Pharma Rep is Done

As I sit behind a computer in my office today at the Physician’s “workstation”, I am baffled at the steady flow of Pharmaceutical representatives that flow into our office on a daily basis. Each rep comes in with a fancy glossy print detailing the data concerning their particular drug. My office is busy—patients are coming in and out and medical assistants are busy checking vitals and verifying medications (and of course, entering data into the computer system EMR). Yet the reps come in and stand at the workstation until someone acknowledges them. They stand, and stand—often distracting clinical staff. These reps are given a quota of “visits” they must make by their superiors. Many times they will arrive with their direct supervisor in tow—they are evaluated by the relationship they may (or may not have) with a group of physicians. But my time with each and every patient I see is limited due to the increased electronic medical record work that I must do—I feel bad for the reps (it is not their fault that they are placed in this role)—but Do I really have time to stop the endless flow of clinical work to speak to them? Does a Pharma rep actually provide any real value to me or to my patients? Would a “detail” presentation by any rep change my practice?

The Days of Yore

In the past, pharma reps were a source of “samples” that I could provide to my poorer patients who could not afford their meds. This was a real value—I depended on reps to provide these medications for my patients. In the days of print only access to journals, I may not have been as current with the medical literature. Reps would often come in and discuss breaking trial news that I had not yet had time to read about. Often they would discuss upcoming trials and plans for the future. We would have spirited “academic” debates over drugs, trial design and outcomes or endpoints. When you were unable to attend scientific meetings, the pharma rep would often be able to summarize the latest trials after they were released.

Now, my institution no longer allows “samples” to be left, and honestly, if I need a drug rep to share the latest data with me then I am not doing my job as a physician. Online access to immediate data from trials upon their release makes “keeping current” much easier. Social Media and other digital tools make it possible to attend national academic meetings such as the American Heart Association annual scientific session or the American College of Cardiology meetings allow everyone to be virtually present for ground breaking presentations of Late Breaking Clinical Trials.

Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with the people who choose to be pharma reps—many are smart, classy, well-meaning folks. However, there is a lot wrong with the antiquated pharma rep sales model in today’s world. Modern technology and easy access to data allows physicians to keep up with the latest clinical trials. Pharmaceutical detailing by reps is not very helpful—it is scripted and based solely on what the FDA allows them to say (think on label vs off label). Reps are not allowed to talk about upcoming trials or discuss any off label applications.

What’s the Answer?

Drug prices in the United States are far too high. Pharma will argue (rightfully so) that the costs of research and development (as well as marketing) drive those costs. However, I think that there are ways to lower costs without sacrificing R and D. I would argue that a restructuring of the pharma “sales force” would save significant dollars. I would also argue that making the FDA approval process more streamlined, faster and more agile would also lower costs. The current Congress is working on the “Cures Act” that will address some of the issues associated with the FDA process. Ultimately, I think that pharma must adjust to the way medicine is now practiced. There is no role for the pharmaceutical representative in the office or hospital. These individuals have absolutely no bearing on my choice to prescribe a particular drug and do not contribute to my continuing medical education. Nearly 75% of all Americans go to the internet after a doctor’s visit. Almost all physicians can access the internet immediately from a smartphone or tablet. Pharma should move their marketing and sales efforts to the digital space exclusively. There is no role for in person physician-pharma rep interaction in medicine today. Use these dollars in better ways—fund patient assistance programs, improve treatments and fund clinical trials. Stop spending money on lunches for the office staff and on fancy packaging. Glossy detail cards are simply tossed in the trash as soon as the representative leaves the building. Focus more on patients. The days of the drug rep have come to an end.

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Physicians and Journalism: Responsibly Meeting the Challenge

As a physician journalist I find myself in a very fortunate and quite unique position—I am able to reach vast numbers of Americans on a daily basis and provide them with credible (and hopefully impactful) news on health and wellness. Medical journalism is similar to the practice of medicine in that we must put the PATIENT first. Just as physicians provide patients with information they need to better understand their disease state and treatment options in a clinical interaction, physician journalists must carefully choose their words when on camera or quoted in print. In a clinical situation, there is time for questions and two-way interaction between doctor and patient. In contrast, medical reporting in broadcast media is a very different situation–there is no opportunity for patient interaction and what is said MUST be something that will stimulate further conversation between viewers and their OWN private physicians. Statements must be clear, evidence based and stories must be reported without bias.

I entered the world of medical journalism nearly five years ago. It is my job to carefully dissect and interpret new studies and provide candid and accurate commentary. It is essential that as a physician, I am able to communicate new research findings on new treatments or new health risks in a way that is non-biased and free from any external influence. Moreover, it is vital that I am able to report stories in a way that does not sensationalize or overstate the effectiveness of any particular therapy. In the last several years, we have seen numerous examples in the media in which medical journalists have behaved in ways that have not met these lofty expectations.   From Dr Mehmet Oz and his overstated claims on herbal remedies to Dr Sanjay Gupta and his heroic involvement in surgical cases while covering stories in Nepal and in Haiti, there are numerous examples from which we can all learn. Dr Oz ultimately testified before Congress concerning his choice of words when discussing non-proven therapies for weight loss and other common maladies. Dr Gupta, a well-respected neurosurgeon and medical reporter, admits that when he is covering a story in a disaster area, he always is a “doctor first” and will respond to an emergency while reporting—even though ethics dictate that journalists should never be “part of the story”. For medical journalists, it can be difficult to decide exactly where the boundaries exist between the responsibilities of being a doctor and serving as a reporter.

The Society of Professional Journalists lists four major tenets in their Code of Ethics that I think MUST be upheld by any medical journalist in order to ensure that patients are protected from mis-information and sensationalism on television as well as in the print media. I believe that any physician who is contemplating entering the world of the media must be aware of these guidelines and think about how each can specifically apply to medical journalism. Below, I have listed each of these principles (as they are listed by the Society) and shared my thoughts on how they may apply to each of us when serving as medical reporters.

1. Seek the Truth and Report

As physicians it is our duty to carefully examine new findings and analyze studies in order to determine their scientific merit. It is important to understand exactly how researchers conducted their studies and arrived at conclusions prior to reporting on any new medical “breakthroughs.” While it may be a great headline to report on a new “revolutionary” treatment, it is far better to temper excitement with the facts—while a new finding may be promising, it takes time to determine whether or not it will truly be a groundbreaking new therapy. It is important that medical journalists describe the basics of any study to the audience—sample size, randomization, and design methods—in order to help viewers understand exactly what conclusions can be drawn for a particular bit of research. Once the data is reported, it is essential that the physician journalist place the findings in context—how can the study be applied to patients and how might it impact lives.

2. Minimize Harm (Primum non nocere)

Certainly, all physicians take an oath to first do no harm when caring for patients. This principle should also apply to physicians who are reporting the news. It is essential to remember that physicians, by their very title are given a certain level of elevated credibility. Physicians who are featured on television are provided an even higher level of credibility and believability. When a physician with well respected credentials speaks to a national television or radio audience, most viewers believe what is said and do not question the source—this requires a physician journalist to carefully choose the words that they use to communicate complex ideas in order to leave no room for ambiguous interpretation. Sensationalization can produce confusion and may result in patients running for treatments that are not proven to be safe and effective in randomized controlled clinical trials. In addition, if a physician journalist is involved in debating policy or healthcare politics, he or she must remain respectful to the opposition and remember that, even though we may not agree with others, all involved are human beings.

3. Act Independently

Conflicts of interest can destroy credibility and can also lead to perceived professional misconduct. It is essential that the physician journalist is careful to avoid any outside influence when reporting on a new device or treatment. Pharmaceutical and medical device companies can significantly influence the way in which data or breaking news stories may be reported. In order to remain and perceived as unbiased reporters, physician journalists must carefully disclose ANY relationships with industry and ideally avoid accepting ANY payments or gifts from industry partners. Avoid any form of “advertising” when reporting and always use trade names rather than brand names when appropriate. Always mention alternatives and competitive drugs or treatments when discussing a particular branded device or drug in order to provide the viewer with a more complete view of the story.

4. Be Accountable

A credible and successful physician journalist must accept responsibility for your words when reporting. We all must be willing to respond to challenges and criticism in a respectful, professional way. Not all viewers will agree with your assessment of a particular story—and most certainly will not always agree with your position in a healthcare policy debate. Be ready to defend your position with vigor but also be willing to admit if you have made a mistake or error in your reporting or in any conclusion that you may have drawn. Clarify your position when required and be very transparent with your sources of information when appropriate.  Carefully determine the impact of your words–as a physician on television, you are given an elevated level of credibility.  Avoid the Dr Oz example of sensationalization and over-blowing stories.  If medical journalists are conscientious and honest, they will not likely be required to testify before Congress as in the case of Dr Oz.

What is the Bottom Line??

The practice of medicine is an honor and a privilege—every person with the degree of Medical Doctor is very fortunate to be able to utilize a particular set of gifts and skills to help others. Providing care to patients and offering treatment and even cures for chronic disease is incredibly rewarding. For me, as a physician journalist, it is equally as important to educate the public and improve awareness of diseases and their treatments. Television, radio and print media provide the opportunity for physicians to serve the pubic in an entirely different way. By discussing medical advances and drawing attention to common symptoms and medical problems, physician journalists have the chance to make a real impact on overall public health. Just as the physician has a responsibility to provide their very best to the patient when involved in patient care, the physician journalist also has an enormous responsibility to provide credible, non biased and accurate information to the public when reporting.

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Sharing Bad News or Keeping Secrets—How Physician Communication Impacts Patients and Families

Doctors and Patients bond over time. Information exchange, education and sharing of expertise are critical activities that add to the effective practice of medicine. Delivering bad news is unfortunately an unpleasant part of a physician’s job. Honesty, empathy and clear communication are essential to delivering news to patients and their families—even when the news is unpleasant or unexpected. While communication is an integral part of the practice of medicine, not all healthcare providers are able to relay information or test results in a way that is easily digested and processed by patients. Some physicians may avoid delivering bad news altogether—often keeping patients in the dark. While a paternalistic approach to medicine was accepted as the status quo for physician behavior in the 1950s, patients now expect to play a more active role in their own care. Patients have a right to demand data and understand why their healthcare providers make particular diagnostic and treatment decisions.

Recently, a disturbing report indicated that in a database of Medicare patients who were newly diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, only 45% were informed of their diagnosis by their physician. While shocking, these statistics mirror the way in which cancer diagnoses were handled in the 1950s with many doctors choosing not to tell patients about a devastating health problem. With the advent of better cancer therapies and improved outcomes, now we see than nearly 95% of all patients are informed of their cancer diagnosis by their physician.

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How can this be? Why would a physician NOT tell a patient about a potentially life changing diagnosis?

I think that there are many reasons for this finding in Alzheimer’s disease and that we must address these issues in order to provide ethical and timely care to our patients.

  1. Time constraints: Electronic documentation requirements and non-clinical duties allow for less time spent with each patient. In order to deliver bad news such as a terminal diagnosis, a responsible physician must not only spend time carefully delivering a clear message but must also be available to handle the reaction and questions that will inevitably follow. Many physicians may avoid discussing difficult issues due to the lack of time available to help the patient and family process a diagnosis. We must create ways to diminish the administrative burden on physicians and free them up to do more of what they do best—care for patients. More reasonable and meaningful documentation requirements must be brought forward. Currently, many physicians spend far more time typing on a computer rather than interacting in a meaningful way with patients during their office visits. Eye contact, human interaction and empathy are becoming more of a rarity in the exam room. This certainly limits the effective delivery of bad (or good) news to patients. Priority MUST be placed on actual care rather than the computer mandated documentation of said “care”.
  2. Dwindling Long-Term Doctor Patient Relationships: Networks of hospitals, providers and healthcare systems have significantly disrupted traditional referral patterns and long-term care plans. Many patients who have been enrolled in the ACA exchanges are now being told that they cannot see their previous providers. Many physicians (even in states such as California) are opting out of the Obamacare insurances due to extremely low reimbursement rates. Patients may be diagnosed with a significant life changing illness such as Alzheimer’s disease early in their relationship with a brand new healthcare provider. When a new physician provides a patient with bad news—of a life-changing diagnosis that will severely limit their life expectancy as well as quality of life—patients often have difficulty interpreting these results. Healthcare providers that have no relationship with a patient or family are at an extreme disadvantage when delivering negative healthcare news. Long-term doctor patient relationships allow physicians to have a better understanding of the patient, their values and their family dynamics. This “insider knowledge” can help facilitate difficult discussions in the exam room.
  3. Lack of effective therapies to treat the disease: No physician likes to deliver bad news. No doctor wants to admit “defeat” at the hands of disease. It is often the case where some healthcare providers will not disclose some aspects of a diagnosis if there are no effective treatments. I firmly disagree with this practice of withholding relevant information as I believe that every patient has the right to know what they may be facing—many will make significant life choices if they know they have a progressively debilitating disease such as Alzheimer’s disease. In the 1950s, many patients were not told about terminal cancer diagnoses due to the lack of effective treatments. However, medicine is no longer paternalistic—we must engage and involve our patients in every decision.
  4. Lack of Physician communication education: As Medical Students we are often overwhelmed with facts to memorize and little attention is given to teaching students how to effectively interact with patients as well as colleagues. Mock interviews with post interview feedback should be a part of pre clinical training for physicians. We must incorporate lectures on grief and the grieving process into the first year of medical school. Making connections with patients must be a priority for physicians in the future—we must equip trainees with the tools they need for success.  Leaders distinguish themselves by the way in which they share bad news.  According to Forbes magazine the critical components of sharing bad news include–accuracy of communication, taking responsibility for the situation, listening, and telling people what you will do next.

What’s next?

As with most things in medicine, change often occurs “around” healthcare providers without direct physician input. Physicians are appropriately focused on providing excellent care and connecting with patients while politicians and economists craft the future of medicine. The issues with lack of communication of negative findings with patients MUST be addressed. Patients have a right to their own data and have a right to know both significant and insignificant findings. In order to avoid situations where patients are not fully informed about their medical condition, we must continue to remain focused on the patient—even if it means that other clerical obligations are left unattended.

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The Land of Oz: Engaging Viewers or Selling Snake Oil?

Dr Mehmet Oz, also known by many as America’s Doctor, is a very influential face within American medicine.  An accomplished cardiac surgeon and Columbia University faculty member, Dr Oz has impressive academic credentials.  However, in the last year, Dr Oz has received significant criticism for claims he has made about non traditional medical treatments on his nationally syndicated television show where he has called many of them “revolutionary” or “miracle cures”–many of his statements are without scientific merit and have no basis in traditional evidence based medicine.  Much of this culminated with his voluntary testimony in front of the US Congress this past summer.  During the hearing, Dr Oz was blasted for making sensationalized, misleading statements.  While I believe Dr Oz genuinely cares about helping others improve their health, I do think that he used poor judgement when speaking about these non traditional treatments.

This week, a study in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) examined the claims that have been made by Dr Oz and The Doctors syndicated television shows.  In the study, investigators randomly chose 40 episodes of each program and then attempted to find medical evidence for claims made about 80 separate treatments.  What they found was astonishing–only 50% of the therapies had either a study or case report to support the claims that were made by the television doctors.  More concerning was the fact that of the 80 recommendations from the Dr Oz Show, the data supported the claims only 46%.  In fact, nearly 15% of the time the best available evidence actually contradicted the claims that were made by Dr Oz on his show.  The Doctors television program did slightly better with evidence supporting their recommendations 64% of the time.   The investigators concluded that most recommendations from medical talk shows lacked adequate evidence to support their use and that television doctors do not provide adequate information on each treatment and do not disclose any potential conflict of interest.

This particular study has significant implications for both patients and physicians.  As physicians we are constantly confronted by patients who come into to the office to discuss treatments that they may have heard about on television.  We must not only be aware of these therapies but we also have to better educate patients and help them decide if any of the “Dr Oz treatments” are right for them and their disease process. Patients are bombarded with medical recommendations from television which are commonly sensationalized and oversold by television doctors and other well known personalities.  We must caution patients that when phrases such as “miracle cure” and “revolutionary treatment” are used on television when a particular disease or medical problem is discussed that the advice given is more than likely too good to be true.

As a physician that regularly appears on television to provide insight and commentary for medical stories and new medical developments, I am always careful to provide information that is based in fact.  Media personalities have a responsibility to report the truth–when giving opinion, we must be clear that we are in fact, making a statement of opinion that is based on fact and the best available medical evidence.  As physician journalist, I have an even greater responsibility to choose my words carefully–it is part of the American culture that TV appearances give on camera experts increased credibility and believability. While I believe that Dr Oz as well as the physicians who appear on The Doctors syndicated shows have the best of intentions, I do think that their zeal for ratings and viewers may lead to making less than accurate claims.  These shows have great potential–they bring medical issues to the forefront and actually help to engage patients in their own medical care.  We know that patient engagement is critical to improving outcomes–and these types of shows can play an important role.  Rather than reporting on non traditional therapies that have not been studied by randomized controlled clinical trials, television doctors such as Mehmet Oz could make a much larger impact by focusing on ways to prevent disease and reduce obesity among his viewers.  For now, viewers must continue to question medical claims made by Dr Oz and other television doctors.  And physicians who play prominent roles in the media must choose their words carefully and ensure that accurate, data driven information is provided to viewers–leave the snake oil at home.

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The Supreme Court Tackles Social Media: The First Amendment and the Rule of Law on the Internet

Social Media and the internet have often been compared to the “Wild West” at times when it comes to the posting of ideas, opinions and beliefs.  There has been very little regulation of what is posted and how it is utilized–which may actually be a good thing.  However, many of us have learned (often the hard way) that many posts on Facebook, Twitter or other social media sites can be taken out of context and misinterpreted by the masses whom the information may not have been intended for.  As physicians who are active on social media we have even more to consider when taking to the internet.  We must be very careful to choose our words for posts wisely and make sure that we leave very little open to interpretation.  We must be mindful of the legal implications of what we say and do online and must be mindful of patient confidentiality issues as well as standards for professional conduct.  Medical boards across the country have developed guidelines for physicians on social media and academic papers have been published on the subject in the Annals of Internal Medicine.  Now, even the nation’s highest court is venturing into the regulation of social media and the intricacies and legal implications of both the subjective and objective interpretation of online posts.

This week, the Supreme Court will be hearing arguments concerning the classification of social media posts as “free speech.” Unlike face to face interactions, cyber interactions can often be interpreted many different ways.  Social media posts can lack context, facial expression and inflection.  Last year a man was sent to prison for posting threats to harm his estranged wife on Facebook.  His posts were absolutely violent and inappropriate in nature and–when simply read out loud–conveyed a sense of intent.  While no crime was committed and no act of violence occurred the defendant was prosecuted and convicted based on a Federal statute involving the criminality of the interstate communication of threats to harm others.  The defendant argued that he was simply writing a “rap” on his Facebook page, expressing his feelings and had no real intention of harming his wife or acting on any of the perceived threats.  However, the interpretation of these comments by the estranged wife and others constituted a criminal offense and resulted in his imprisonment.  While I do not in any way condone this type of online behavior and speech, I do think that it may greatly influence rules the internet “playground” in the future.

Because of its national attention and the fact that arguments will be held in front of the nation’s highest court, this case will have lasting impact on social media and the classification of what is considered free speech in cyberspace.  As outlined in an article published in the New York Times earlier this year, at issue is whether or not posts on social media should be interpreted “objectively” or “subjectively”.  If you interpret the threatening words objectively, you may conclude that the threat is real and that most reasonable individuals would see this as an imminent danger–however, as the counsel for the defendant argues, if you subjectively interpret the words you may be convinced that it was simply the musings of an artist creating a poem or a rap song in response to a life crisis and posed no danger.

Regardless of the outcome of this Supreme Court case, it should serve as a wake up call to all of us who are active on Social Media.  We must continue protect our rights to free speech and expression on the internet.  However, we must also be mindful of our words and how they may be interpreted by others.  Social media is an important tool for all of us to use in order to positively impact others and influence opinion–certainly free speech is protected but we must take care not to abuse these protections.  The individual involved in the criminal case–regardless of intent–showed poor judgement in his public posting and is now dealing with the consequences of his decisions.  However,  I certainly hope that the Supreme Court carefully considers the impact of any opinion they may render in this case. The internet and social media must remain a place for creative expression and innovation–too much regulation and any limits to our right to free speech in cyberspace would have serious negative consequences for all of us.  This case should serve to remind us of one important fact–As physicians and healthcare professionals active on social media, we must hold ourselves to a higher standard of online behavior and continue to remain professional in all that we do online.

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Should We All Die at 75?: Addressing the “Emanuel Principe” in Obamacare

Ezekiel Emanuel, one of the authors of the Affordable Care Act spoke publicly this week about his own desire to “die at 75” in a article published in the Atlantic.  In his piece, he argues that as he ages, he wishes to stop all preventative medical measures and “let nature take its course” as he approaches the age of 75.  This includes screenings such as colonoscopy as well as taking flu shots for the prevention of communicable illness.  While currently in excellent health, Mr Emanuel believes that while death is a loss–”living too long is also a loss.” He argues that the American obsession with living longer results in a larger number of elderly, disabled citizens.  I take significant issue with this position and fear that this is simply the beginning of a new phase in the ACA debate–the rationing of care. From the outset, many of us in healthcare and scholars of healthcare policy have seen Obamacare as a way to promote the rationing healthcare (particularly for the elderly).  While the administration has vehemently denied these claims throughout the legislative and implementation phases of the new healthcare law, it is particularly revealing that one of the principal architects of the law firmly believes that we should not pay attention to life expectancy statistics beyond the age of 75.  Medical advances have made it increasingly possible for seniors to lead healthy, productive exciting lives well into their 80s.  Now, I certainly am not arguing for providing futile care in the setting of terminal illness but–Why then should government (instead of doctors) now have the right to determine how healthcare resources are utilized and who gets what?  Is it all about age?  Do we value the young more than the more “seasoned” citizens? The US healthcare system, while certainly imperfect, offers some of the greatest technological advances in the world and the most significant thing that has always set US healthcare apart form others has been CHOICE.  With Obamacare in place, we now have less choice in our healthcare and very little improvement in access.  This latest article by Mr Emmanuel is no surprise–he has been clear about his belief in allocating health care dollars away from activities which may extend lifespans for Americans.  While, Mr Emmanuel certainly has the RIGHT to refuse care for himself at a certain age neither he (NOR OBAMA or any GOVERNMENT agent) should be able to determine an “acceptable” life span for each of us. Quality of life and health status can be very subjective and care must remain individualized rather than mandated (or withheld) based on actuarial tables or government rationing of resources. Medicine is all about innovation and the development of new technologies.  Through technology we are able to provide longer, more productive lives for our patients.  Our patients are able to retire from a life of work and enjoy spouses, family and friends–well into their 80s and 90s WITH a quality of life.  In fact one of my favorite “golf buddies” is 80 years old and going strong–He can still shoot in the 80s from time to time and never misses a game. In MEDICINE one size does not fit all.  OBAMACARE wants to force a ONE SIZE FITS ALL healthcare system on all of us and as a physician I find this to be unacceptable.  Just as we must cater therapy to individual patients—when (and how) you die must also be catered to each individual patients needs, desires and beliefs. Chronological age such as 75 may be different for different people AND we must respect individual needs.  Medicine is a clearly a science but in many cases the practice of medicine –particularly when making decisions about end of life issues–makes it more of an ART.  The government has no place in dictating ART.  Government should help to preserve and curate art–not regulate and mandate the way in which medical care is delivered to individual patients based on age. Ultimately, left to its own devices, I believe that the ACA will create rationing of care for Americans and we will have two classes of people–those that are wealthy and can afford private care and can pay cash for it–these can make their own healthcare decisions and decide when enough is enough.  The others–most of us–will be lumped into the disaster that IS obamacare and will have little or no choice in how our healthcare is delivered.  Waiting lists for advanced procedures and denials of advanced care for the elderly will be the standard–Just as Mr Emanuel envisioned it when he crafted the law just a few short years ago.

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Privacy in the Era of Mobile Tech and Social Media: Facebook Fallout and New Innovations for Protecting Your Privacy

Did Facebook cross the line when conducting human behavior social experiments last year?  I think so.  When conducting scientific research on human subjects investigators are held to very high standards.  Currently there is global outrage over the experiment and government regulators from several countries are currently looking into the matter a bit more closely.  As I described in my blog a few days ago, Facebook recently published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science reporting on a study that they conducted in September 2013.  In this study, researchers purposefully manipulated the News Feeds of randomly selected users in order to determine effects on mood and emotion.  None of the subjects were aware of the experiment and none had provided specific informed consent.

Many academic investigators as well as social media experts from across the globe have taken issue with the lack of specific informed consent and the utilization of subjects without any notification–until the paper was published in a well respected academic journal this last week.  Some groups have petitioned the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Facebook has had very little to say–other than “we are sorry…and we are adopting stricter internal review standards for future research.”

How can we avoid situations like this in the future?

Obviously, with the Facebook situation, public outrage and potential regulatory action by governments in many parts of the world may help limit these types of activities by social media platforms in the future.  Currently, several countries including both the US and many throughout Europe are discussing ways to limit privacy incursions such as the Facebook experiment in the future.

Unfortunately, the utilization of data by large social media platforms and organizations may not be the biggest threat to you and your privacy.  Hackers and other criminals are grabbing data from consumers–without their knowledge–from mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones.  These devices are placed in the hands of children, and often lie around the house and are frequently left “on” and unattended.

One inventor from New York City–Michael Sorrentino– has created a new device that can help keep you, your family and your data a little safer.

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Called the iPatch case, this device may change the way you think about your mobile device and its self contained camera.  Hackers and other criminals can actually utilize your own smartphone camera to take pictures of your home or office and can even build a 3D model of your house.  This can result in identity theft, theft of real property or utilizing your images without consent for whatever purpose the criminals deem necessary.  Disguised as a harmless camera application that is often downloaded, these programs can access your camera and obtain images without your knowledge or consent.  Other malware programs have been developed and innocently disguised as harmless games or apps for download.  Software has been developed (and sold by hackers for less than $50 dollars) that can infiltrate your device and control your cameras–stealing sensitive documents, creating models of a home or office or even snapping shots of your children.

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The device–called the iPatch is now in development.  Mr Sorrentino is currently working on the prototype and will be marketing the device once produced.  WIth the iPatch device one flip of a switch will cover and eliminate photo functionality from both the front and back camera of your smartphone.  The device is being developed through crowd-sourcing efforts and is expected to enter production this year.

Mobile technology is changing the way we interact and how we share information.  Issues such as the Facebook “experiment” should give us all pause to consider our safety as we continue to embrace social media, mobile technology and information sharing.  In the future, innovations such as the iPatch are likely to continue to emerge and will ultimately provide us with more options for staying safe while staying engaged and connected in our busy technology driven lives.  Most importantly, as parents, we must set good “mobile behavior” examples for our children and take measures to improve the security of our devices and our information.  Social Media is embedded in the fabric of our lives–and this is a good thing–we must, however, take care to continue to be vigilant and protect ourselves and our families from the new world of cyber-crime.