DR. MARC SIEGEL: Do Doctors Have a Right to Invade Patient Privacy?

As I write in my new book, "The Inner Pulse," doctors can and should be constantly reassessing our proper roles when it comes to our patients and their lives. How much do we know? How much do we need to know?

And though an argument can certainly made that if you have a gun there is a potential you might use it, and if you did use it I, as your physician, would need to know about any injury that could result. Therefore, this argument goes, gun possession should be one of my routine screening questions.

I don’t happen to buy this argument, especially since a strong counter-argument can be made on behalf of patient privacy. If I can ask you about guns, then what can’t I ask you about? Can I ask you about your sexual proclivities, your favorite vegetable, whether you double lock the door when you leave the house? All these questions and many others can be construed as having medical implications, but do I have the right to invade your privacy and ask them?

The correct answer to this question, in my opinion, is that it depends on the circumstances. This is also the proper answer for all the questions a doctor asks you. What is he or she hoping to learn? Will it help your health care?

The state of Florida is on the verge of taking this debate in a whole new direction. If Governor Rick Scott signs a bill that has already passed the state Senate and House, Florida will become the first state in the nation to prohibit doctors from asking patients if they have guns in their homes.

Not surprisingly, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has come out against this landmark legislation, based on a concern that it could block pediatricians from their key role in protecting children. I think this is a fair point when you consider that children are frequently injured playing with guns when a parent isn’t right there in the room.

The AAP is right to be concerned that since guns can accidentally injure children, it is helpful for a doctor to know about it. This knowledge wouldn’t automatically be punitive or an invasion of privacy if it was directly connected to teaching about safety, childproofing and precautions.

I believe that under certain circumstances, a doctor has a right to ask the question. Remember, a patient can always refuse to answer.

Marc Siegel, M.D. is a professor of medicine and Medical Director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Medical Center. His latest book is "The Inner Pulse; Unlocking the Secret Code for Sickness and Health."