Canadians covertly taping doctors as allegations of poor patient care increase

·National Affairs Contributor

We seem to have developed a culture where paranoia is the norm. We appear to trust no one. Movies and TV shows keyed to vast conspiracies are popular; the double-cross and hidden agenda are considered acceptable.

And we've taken to watching each other surreptitiously. It's not just the police and security guards monitoring our behaviour on closed-circuit TV. It's us with our smart phones and miniaturized video cameras.

We spy on our babysitters via nanny-cams and our housecleaners to make sure they're not stealing or raiding the liquor cabinet. We are the surveillance society.

If you need evidence, look no further than what's happening in the health care sector. Trust in medical professionals seems to be ebbing away, with patients and their families resorting to covert video surveillance to keep tabs on their doctors and nurses.

The problem is so serious, Sally Bean, a bioethicist at Toronto's Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, made a presentation in October to the American Society of Bioethics and Humanities Conference in Washington, D.C., the National Post reported.

Bean dubbed the phenomenon "panopticon revisited," a nod to 18th-century British philosopher Jeremy Bentham's idealized prison, where a guard could observe all the inmates without them knowing whether they were being watched.

In Bean's modern conception we've become the guards. She noted one example of a complaint filed against Sunnybrook by the family of a patient alleging poor care by the hospital's doctors and nurses.

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The main exhibit was video footage recorded by a tiny radio-controlled camera hidden inside a clock radio on the patient's nightstand. Cameras have even turned up inside teddy bears, she said.

An even more notorious example was the case of Calgary forensic psychiatrist Aubrey Levin, on trial for allegedly sexually assaulting several male patients during their sessions with him.

One of the main prosecution exhibits was a video recording made by one patient who was wearing a spy-cam wrist watch.

"I'm hearing of more and more of these types of scenarios," Bean, who has been consulted on several incidents in the last year or so, told the Post.

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Bean's presentation to the Washington conference discussed the pros and cons of this apparently growing practice. It's not illegal, the Post noted, but health care officials worry it undermines the relationship between patient and medical professional, and can also affect the privacy of other patients in shared hospital rooms.

Bean noted hospitals might need to spell out rules regarding what kind of recording is allowed without consent, since most facilities allow overt recording, such as during the birth of a child. But explicitly barring covert recording could also further erode trust, she told her colleagues.

The fact it's happening at all speaks to how far that trust has already broken down, Linda Wright, bioethics director at Toronto's University Health Network, told the Post.

"We also have to think in terms of the health-care worker, trying to fulfill their duties and obligations on the job, and how it feels to them once this has been picked up in a surreptitious way."

And yet, enough cases of abuse seem to crop up to make us wonder if personal surveillance isn't necessary.

University of Calgary bioethicist Juliet Guichon agrees it's sometimes justified, citing the Levin case.

YouTube is dotted with videos of the elderly apparently being mistreated in nursing homes. In Britain last August, a nursing-home worker was jailed for her treatment of an 89-year-old woman with dementia on evidence from a hidden camera.

"I think that patients not only should have the right to do it, but should be encouraged to by the hospital," Sholom Glouberman, head of the Patients' Association of Canada, told the Post.

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