Psychiatric Ethics of Publishing Cases

Publication of psychiatric cases in the media can benefit the public, patients, and psychiatry in general. It can also benefit the author and the publisher, but such publication raises the question of whether, and how, we can ethically make patient treatment information public.

Do we as psychiatrists want prospective patients to wonder whether they might end up in the same positions as Dr. Spork and his patient Barbara?:

In the past week or so two psychiatrists appear to have described real cases in national media. In neither was there any indication that the author had made up the case; in neither was there indication that the psychiatrist obtained permission from the patient; and in neither was there any indication of the extent, if  any, to which the author might have disguised the case. In both the level of detail seemed sufficient that the patient might be identified:

Depression On The Rise In College Students
In fairness to the Dayton, Ohio psychiatrist, Jerald Kay, MD, who did not author the story, I can find only one sentence in which he seems to have supplied the information. Perhaps the author obtained the story elsewhere and Kay just added to it.

When Self-Knowledge Is Only the Beginning
New York psychiatrist Richard A. Friedman, MD authored this story.

In each of these articles:

  • Does potential benefit to the public outweigh risk of damage to the patient?
  • What constitutes adequate disguise?
  • Can a psychiatrist ethically ask a patient to allow publication without damaging the treatment relationship?

An author can attempt to disguise patient information, but what constitutes adequate disguise? In a private communication a chair of the American Psychiatric Association ethics committee pointed me to the standard used by a professional journal. The sole criterion was whether the patient herself could recognize her case. But, in my opinion the most critical piece of information in determining whether a case describes oneself is the name of the treating psychiatrist who will generally be the author. Regardless of the criteria used, the author should make note of the fact that a case has been fictionalized or disguised.


When it seems likely that any reader can identify the patient from published information, and even perhaps when there seems to be little such danger, one might consider obtaining the patient's consent to publish their case. However, this raises the additional question of whether a patient can freely consent. In most situations where it is desirable to release patient information the patient benefits directly, and often the patient initiates the request. In this case however the author, publication, and perhaps the public -- not the patient -- stand to benefit. The physician asking for consent risks placing the patient in a difficult position where he might feel pressured to consent against his will, damaging the treatment relationship. If the patient did consent to publication, the author should state this fact in the article.

Relevant sections of the APA Principles of Medical Ethics With Annotations Especially Applicable to Psychiatry:

Section 1.1 “A psychiatrist shall not gratify his or her own needs by exploiting the patient. The psychiatrist shall be ever vigilant about the impact that his or her conduct has upon the boundaries of the doctor-patient relationship, and thus upon the well-being of the patient.”

Section 4.11 “It is ethical to present a patient or former patient to … the news media only if the patient is fully informed of enduring loss of confidentiality, is competent, and consents in writing without coercion.”

From an APA Ethics Opinion:

Section 2-RR “Their consent, while ‘freely’ given, is likely to be heavily influenced by their transference feelings, the need to please you… suggests an exploitation of your patients for your personal gain that outweighs the potential benefit of public education.”

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