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Should You Record Your Visits to the Doctor?

It might be a good idea, but be sure to do it the right way


Part of the Transforming Life as We Age Special Report

Five years ago, Melanie McGovern, 74, a retired St. Albans, Vt. nurse, learned that her surgeon wanted to remove one of her lungs to treat her lung cancer. Her surgeon, plus the radiologist and others on her medical team, met with her to discuss this big and scary step.

McGovern’s husband came to the meeting, as did her daughter — who asked if it was OK to record it. The surgeon appeared startled, says McGovern, and at first refused, but immediately changed his mind. She was glad he did.

The recording “was a godsend,” McGovern says. After the meeting, she, her husband and daughter often referred to it as questions arose — finding that all three had remembered what was said differently.

“I’m sure it saved a lot of calls to the office and it gave me peace of mind,” McGovern says.

As smartphones with their built-in recorders become commonplace, some patients are using them to record their office visits and other interactions with their doctors. For many, this is an important piece of ensuring they receive person-centered care, or care that is based on the values and preferences of the person receiving the care (and as in the case of McGovern, that person’s family), rather than care driven by the health provider.

But it’s still a new area for clinicians, so you need to keep some things in mind before you hit the record button.

Record Openly or On the Sly?

It’s hard to say how many people in the United States are taping their doctors. If one study of patients in the United Kingdom is any indication, it could be a lot — and many are doing so secretly. The 2015 study found that 15 percent surreptitiously recorded their visits, while 11 percent knew someone who’d done so. Almost 70 percent of respondents wanted to record future visits; 35 percent were OK with doing so secretly and 34 percent if given permission.

Is it legal in the U.S. to secretly record your doctor? The law varies by state and can have exceptions, but in general, most states let people record conversations with only one person consenting, according to the Digital Media Law Project.

On the other hand, at least 10 states require all parties to consent: California, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Washington.

Dr. Alan Bryce, an oncologist at Mayo Clinic in Arizona, says he gets about one patient per month asking to tape an office visit, and he has no problem with the practice.

“I’ve always said ‘go ahead,’ because it’s not hard to understand why they might ask that,” Bryce says. “It can be a lot of information to take in at once,” so patients may want to listen to the conversation later or share the information with family members.

Bryce realizes that some patients may be uncomfortable asking the doctor for permission, but says it’s better to do this than tape secretly.

“The therapeutic relationship should be based on mutual trust and respect,” he says.

What do doctors think about taping? “It’s not yet part of most doctors’ routine practice,” says Dr. Timothy Lahey, an infectious disease specialist, clinical ethicist and associate professor at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice. “So it’s new and it makes some doctors go, ‘Hmm.'”

Doctors may worry about getting sued, he says. Another concern: that taping could hurt the doctor-patient relationship.

Clinicians also must protect the rights of other patients who may be recorded without their consent, says Lahey. Some patients have recorded waiting-room interactions, for instance, and “inadvertently captured the visages of other patients who may not want to be recorded.” This should be forbidden, he says.

Right now, the practice of taping doctors isn’t common enough for many physicians or hospitals to have policies about it, says Bryce. “There’s not a lot of guidelines.”

Still, says Bryce, “I think most doctors are OK with it.”

How to Ask Your Doctor to Record

In the future, your medical sessions may be recorded automatically, using a system that tags parts of the encounter so you can look up specific advice by keyword rather than having to scroll through the whole recording. One tool to do this is being studied by researchers at Dartmouth College.

For now, though, you’ll have to handle taping your doctor yourself.

Bryce and Lahey recommend asking your doctor if you can record what he or she says — not just announcing you are doing this.

“One nice way of doing it is if the patient says, ‘Sometimes it’s hard to remember everything we talked about and I’d like to talk about it with my spouse who can’t be here today, so would you mind if I record it?'” suggests Lahey.

“That sort of rationale can go a long way to helping make it clear to everybody in the room that this is all about patient rights and patient understanding, and we all agree about this,” he says. “In return, I would urge clinicians to say yes.”

Lorna Collier
By Lorna Collier
Lorna Collier is an experienced writer and editor specializing in education, technology, business and health topics. She also has published articles in Discover, USNews.com, the Chicago TribuneCNN.com, AARP Bulletin, Healthgrades.com, MSN.comSmart Computing, Lifescript.com, Neurology Now and many others.

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