Monday, June 9, 2008

Privacy and professional autonomy: challenges

Dean Giustini recently brought me to the attention of his readers on the Google Scholar blog which prompted some very interesting questions in the comments. I promised to respond to those questions here.

Q: The first question raised by Anon had to do with patient privacy, a question that was not raised at the CHLA conference and has in fact not come up at all until now. The poster expressed legitimate concerns over whether placing my consults in the patient charts* is "a violation of the librarian's code of ethics to keep questions confidential."

A: I completely agree that when I am in the library and a person approaches me with a question it should be kept confidential, and this is our practise, except when I am seeing a Herzl patient at the library, in which case I make a copy of the consult and place in the their chart at the clinic, this being considered an extension of my service there. In the case of the Herzl service, it is being delivered at point of care, and the expectations of privacy and confidentiality are different. I am recognized as being a member of the team who participates in the provision of care. Most people come to me having been referred by their physician or nurse in the first place which means that the question is already known to them.

I make a point of explaining to anyone who comes to me without a referral or meets with me in the library exactly how the system works i.e. that the consult will end up in their chart and why this is so. I also let them know that if this bothers them I will keep it confidential. So far no one has expressed concern over this or refused to have their consult put into the chart. Perhaps I should try to make the process more transparent by explaining it every time. I haven’t always done this for the same reason I know it is difficult for health professionals to remember to send their patients to the library or to my service: time can be an issue, and also it doesn’t always occur to me when I am focused on conducting a thorough reference interview and answering the question. You have given me something to think about.

Q: The second question/comment had to do with professional autonomy. Anon wondered whether it would be difficult for a librarian to maintain professional autonomy given the hierarchical nature of the clinical setting.

A: If I understand correctly, Anon is expressing concern that a librarian in my situation could be pressured to provide information to patients in support of whatever treatment decision was being recommended by the referring health care professional. It is not always easy for librarians, even for those of us working in a clinical setting, to uphold another of our professional codes which is to provide access to balanced and unbiased information to all, regardless of what our own opinions are on the question or the asker. We are human after all. And often we are limited by what information is actually available to us. Regardless, I do my very best to uphold this code. I am also very careful to make it clear that I cannot interpret the information I am providing access to, nor can I offer any kind of opinion regarding treatment.

There have been a a few cases where the information I have provided has suggested a different course to the patient than the one originally proposed by their referring physician. There have also been cases where the patient only agreed to the proposed treatment after receiving information from me. I see both as examples of shared decision-making and am pleased to have played a part in that process. My impression is that the health care providers I work with are aware that it could go either way when they send someone to me, and this is a risk they take because they believe in the process.

*Important note: the charts I am referring to are kept at the Herzl and are not available hospital-wide or electronically.

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