Bioethics Blogs

“Our Family Secrets” Exposed — The Ethics of Whistleblowing

This week the Annals of Internal Medicine published an article so controversial they felt the need to publish an accompanying editorial, explaining their decision to publish the anonymous article.

The article, “Our Family Secrets” describes two experiences where a health care provider has acted inappropriately while patients were under anesthesia. The editorial describes the acts with poignant alarm: “The first incident reeked of misogyny and disrespect—the second reeked of all that plus heavy overtones of sexual assault and racism.”

Few things are as disturbing as the knowledge that things like this happen, perhaps more than we’re comfortable admitting, even if this is an extreme example. Treating patients with respect is a core value of health care, but “although we wish it were otherwise, most physicians at some point find themselves in the midst of situations where a colleague acts in a manner that is disrespectful to a patient.”

What is the right way to respond to this kind of behavior? What if the person acting inappropriately is your superior? Do you confront them immediately, as the anesthesiologist did? Do you report to their superiors? Do you try to ignore it? Do you join in, begrudgingly or otherwise? Do you write an essay for all the world to see?

While the actions of the individuals in the article are a topic for a lengthy discussion, the author’s decision to write the story, and the Annals of Internal Medicine‘s decision to publish it are an interesting conundrum altogether. The author ends his essay with, “I know this is my silence to break,” but is whistleblowing in this fashion the right way to handle these shameful secrets?

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.