COMMENTARY

It's Nuts! Cute Baby Photos in the Doc's Office Are Illegal?

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD

Disclosures

September 11, 2014

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Hi. I am Art Caplan, at NYU Langone Medical Center, Division of Medical Ethics, in New York.

If you went to a doctor's office for in vitro fertilization, a doctor who helps others make babies and often produces some pretty joyous results, you would see that those offices are full of baby pictures. These specialists like to show you the results of their work. And when you go in, you can see pictures of kids of all ages all over the walls of the facilities. These are the happy results of the work of people involved in assisted reproduction.

Now, however, some see a big threat to that photographic exhibition of joy. People are starting to take the pictures down because they are worried that they violate American laws on privacy. They basically say that if you can identify a person and you are not involved in giving them care, then that violates the person's privacy and you should not be sharing medical information about that person without explicit consent. In other words, if I take pictures and stick them up on the wall, and someone says, "Hey, isn't that little Peter (or Suzy) Smith?" I am now in trouble because I have violated HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act). I have disrupted the American protection on privacy.

Misdirected Intentions

I have two things to say about this: It is nuts and it is nuts. There is no reason to think that anyone is going to identify a person from a baby picture on a wall. No one looks the way they did when they were babies. The chance of someone encountering a person they could identify is minimal. And anyway, what exactly would be the harm? You might say, "Well, then they would know that person was created at a fertility clinic." But I believe the odds of someone making those connections are trivial. I believe the power of the privacy law is being misdirected.

There is something fun, something encouraging, about seeing all of those kids' pictures up on the wall. If they decide not to use any pictures of a person who is 5 or 10 years older, great. You can certainly take steps to try to hide identity, but the notion that we cannot show off the triumph of reproductive technology, that we cannot encourage people who are hoping to have a child, to say, "This technology works; here is the proof" -- and these are some pretty happy customers -- it strikes me that this value is out of order.

As much as I love privacy, as much as I want us to be careful about keeping patient information confidential, in a waiting room with baby pictures, I am okay with taking the chance that someone will recognize your baby.

I am Art Caplan, at the Division of Medical Ethics at the NYU Langone Medical Center. Thanks for watching.

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