Millions of people use websites like WebMD every day to gain insight on a range of medical issues from cancer to mental health. This practice, or “cyberchondria,” is a new digital phenomenon that has resulted from online databases of free, medical information.
With about 74 million users each month, the information on WebMD provides some with clarity for our most intimate and confusing health concerns, but for others, it could be a source of anxiety. In a recent article published in GOOD Magazine, Fordham University Center for Ethics Education Bioethicist Dr. Elizabeth Yuko addressed the “ethical gray area” of web diagnosis and online symptom checkers.
“Websites and algorithms are not held to the Hippocratic Oath. Because WebMD is a media organization, rather than an individual medical professional, it is not held to the same legal and ethical accountability as individual practitioners,” notes Dr. Yuko. Unlike WebMD, other online communities and health professionals must operate under ethics codes and guidelines designed by organizations such as American Medical Association and American Psychological Association.
As far as legal liability is concerned, Dr. Yuko explained that because WebMD’s Terms and Conditions state “This Site Does Not Provide Medical Advice,” the website is not “legally obligated to provide a worst-case scenario” while most health professionals, at least in the United States, are held accountable if they do not provide patients with complete information regarding their health conditions.
Dr. Yuko, however, is most concerned with the use of health care sites as a substitute for obtaining diagnoses because people “can’t afford in-person care.” She stated, “This in itself is an ethics issue, but one from a societal, distributive justice perspective, highlighting the fact that not everyone has access to effective, affordable health care.”
Although the death penalty is on the decline in the United States, the case of James Rhodes highlights the ethical quagmire facing forensic psychiatrists and psychologists whose evaluations contribute whether persons with intellectual disabilities convicted of murder will live or die.
In addition to the increasingly familiar racial biases and legal flaws in death penalty convictions and use of lethal injection, according to Celia B. Fisher, Ph.D. Director of Fordham University’s Centerfor Ethics Education, little attention has been paid to the lack of professional consensus surrounding the validity and reliability of IQ tests in general and for racial minorities in particular, disagreement over the use of absolute cut-off scores to determine intellectual disability, and the inherent fallibility of tests to determine the probability of future violence.
“Professional evaluations are not a panacea for inconsistent, uninformed and often racially biased jury decisions,” notes Fisher, “rather than providing a fair and neutral assessment of mental ability forensic assessments are contributing to inconsistencies that lethally violate the human rights of convicted criminals in capital cases.”
As the 2016 presidential election approaches, psychologists are gaining media attention by diagnosing candidates as having personality disorders, especially for the Republican nominee. But the public should question whether or not offering these diagnoses is professionally ethical or in the service of political agendas.
“Trained mental health practitioners serve the public good by providing diagnoses of individuals based on scientifically and professionally established assessment techniques,” notes Fisher, who chaired the committee that wrote the current American Psychological Association’s (APA) Ethical Principles and Code of Conduct, “however the public and the profession are harmed when psychologists provide opinions based on unsubstantiated information drawn from media reports or other subjective observations.”
There have been claims suggesting that psychologists who offer diagnoses of Donald Trump are doing so for the purpose of national and public interest. According to Fisher, who is the author of the widely read Decoding the Ethics Code: A Practical Guide for Psychologists, “Psychologists who claim that ‘Trumpism’ is a threat to democracy that provides moral justification to offer public diagnoses in the absence of established assessment techniques are deluding themselves into thinking that these unprofessional opinions benefit society.” Fisher further explains that psychologists are actually in “clear violation of the APA Ethics Code and are inadvertently contributing to a political climate based on opinion rather than fact.”
As consumers of the media, it is not uncommon to “diagnose” public figures with various mental disorders, depending on their representation in the press. But for psychologists and psychiatrists, is doing so unethical?
In an op-ed in The New York Times, Columbia University’s Dr. Robert Klitzman explained that for psychiatrists like himself, there is a prohibition from the American Psychiatric Association on providing professional opinions on individuals they have never met or evaluated before.
Troublingly, though, Klitzman mentions that “Psychologists (with Ph.D.s, as opposed to psychiatrists, with medical degrees) argue that this principle does not fully apply to them, and that offering diagnoses of public figures can be in the national interest.”
Psychologists who provide mental health services to adolescents and their families must navigate complex ethical challenges with respect to confidentiality and disclosure decision-making.
How do mental health clinicians develop confidentiality policies that serve to protect minors from serious harm, fulfill professional and legal responsibilities, and preserve the therapeutic relationship with the adolescent and parents/ guardians?
On Wednesday, November 18th, the Fordham University Center for Ethics Education will host a seminar exploring faculty responsibilities towards students in distress. The event will take place from 12:00 – 1:15 p.m. in Keating 124, on the Rose Hill Campus.