Helen Popkin
updated 8/10/2010 3:38:32 PM ET 2010-08-10T19:38:32

Facebook didn't invent irresponsible hospital employees who take photos in emergency rooms and post them on the Internet. Most any middle school student can point you to disturbing medical or crime paparazzi images floating around in cyberspace. But like any well-made tool, Facebook sure makes things easier.

In an article about patient privacy breaches and social networks, the Los Angeles Times reported that four staff members were fired and three disciplined at St. Mary Medical Center in Long Beach, Calif. after photos of a victim with multiple-stab wounds showed up on Facebook. It wasn't the first time medical personnel exploited patients on Facebook, and despite federal laws and growing zero-tolerance hospital policies, it probably won't be the last.

In June, five nurses were fired from a California hospital for discussing patients on Facebook. A nurse in Glasgow, Scotland was disciplined in January after posting surgery photos on her profile. Many hospitals now block Facebook and other social networking sites on in-house computers, but exploitation isn't limited to hospital workers. A Staten Island EMT lost his job last year after posting photos of a murder victim on Facebook.

Perhaps their motivations weren't as malicious as the results, but there is no reasonable excuse. Humans are compelled to look at carnage — and make others look at it, too — for complex reasons, most of which probably revolve around coping mechanisms. A doctor carrying gory images on his cell phone is not unusual. Cops make jokes about grisly crime scene photos. I know a reporter who kept a photo of his first "floater" in his desk as a totem of passage.

Whatever. You do what you gotta do to keep on dealing with your job or wrapping your head around that fact that you, too, could become gravely ill or injured, and most definitely, you're going to die. But here's what you don't do: You don't post those photos on the Internet where anything could go viral and everything is forever.

"It's bad enough if it's an unauthorized person checking something for curiosity's sake. It's another thing to have that then broadcast to dozens or even hundreds of people if not the Internet itself," Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access, a Sacramento-based patient advocacy group, told the Times.

"People have an expectation of privacy," Wright goes on to say. Yet there's a market for this information. In 2008, a UCLA Medical Center employee admitted selling medical information about Britney Spears, Farrah Fawcett and other celebrities to the National Enquirer. The hospital also fired 13 employees and disciplined 14 others for accessing Spears' medical information just for kicks.

With the advent of the Internet, medical information and photos of non-celebrities are also a commodity among carnage junkies. In 2006, photos of an 18-year-old woman killed in a car accident went viral after two highway patrolmen shared them via e-mail. The images became a popular Internet meme, and the young woman's family suffered years of torment from morbid pranksters who spread the photos, posted them on a MySpace memorial page and sent e-mails that either contained the photos or derogatory comments about the deceased.

Obviously, most hospital and emergency workers, as well as police officers can be trusted not to post patient or victim photos and other private information on Facebook, and the Internet at large. Still, here we are six years into Facebook's existence, and it's happened enough to give responsible, caring hospital workers a bad name.

The Internet, and especially Facebook, are now a ubiquitous presence in our lives, but our impulse control still isn't up to speed. Full-grown adults still post stuff on social networks that will get them fired, divorced or arrested. That's fine if the poster is the only one affected by his thoughtless actions. The rest of us read about it on Failbook and have a hearty guffaw that the self-pwned dude's expense. That isn't the case here.

Even a medical or emergency worker who doesn't have the moral compass to understand how messed up this is should grasp that photographing people when they're most vulnerable and exposed is professionally really messed up. Just as driving instructors need to teach students not to text while driving, maybe medical training should include "Don't Be Taking Photos of Patients or Victims and Posting Them on Facebook 101."

That such a course isn't yet offered is understandable. One would think that rules like "Don't photograph the injured or dead and post them on your social network profile," would be taken as read. But just as colonists had to make a law against feeding indentured servants to pigs, hospitals are now instituting strict rules to prevent employee behavior on social networks that potentially destroys lives or the memories of loved ones.

Follow Helen A.S. Popkin on Twitter or Friend her on Facebook. What are ya, chicken?

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