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Meritus Medical Center is one of a number of hospitals that has stopped issuing information about patient conditions to the media. The hospital announced on September 22 that this courtesy would be stopped.
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act places certain restrictions on the disclosure of Protected Health Information to third parties, including the media. Just a few years ago, reporters would be able to call a healthcare provider to make an enquiry about the health status of a patient.
The hospital staff would provide general information about a particular patient’s condition if they were asked about a patient by name. The information disclosed would be restricted, so reporters would be advised for instance, that a patient was good, fair, stable or in critical condition.
Under HIPAA Rules this information may be disclosed to the media; however it is not mandatory for a hospital or healthcare provider to give out any information, except when it is in the public health interest to do so or if required by law enforcement officers to assist with an investigation.
HIPAA Rules See Patient Privacy Improved
Since the HIPAA Privacy Rule is now being enforced, and covered entities can face considerable fines for violations of the Rules covering the disclosure of PHI, many hospitals have now taken the decision to stop releasing any information on patients. They see it as a measure that will improve privacy and help avoid any inadvertent HIPAA violations.
In the case of Meritus Medical Center it was not only the risk of HIPAA violations, but the policy was changed to improve privacy standards for patients. Meritus Communications Manager, Nicole Jovel, said in a media announcement “In conversations with clinicians and administrators, we determined we needed to really increase the level of privacy we were providing.”
A Patient’s Status can Rapidly Change
There are also problems with such a simple classification of status and providing information when it is likely to change. Patients may slip from serious to critical, or may improve from one day to the next. It would not be fair to report a condition, if that information may be incorrect just a few hours later. In the case of newspapers which are printed the following day, they may contain inaccurate information before they even hit consumers’ doorsteps.
Patient Safety is a Major Consideration
Then there is the issue of confirming the identity of the caller, which in often impossible. The hospital treats numerous victims of domestic violence, and Jovel pointed out that the staff cannot be sure if they are giving information to an abusing partner.
The problem faced by Meritus is typical. There are too many variables to consider, and in a busy healthcare setting it is too easy for mistakes to be made. Ultimately those mistakes could prove detrimental to patients and the decision is made to stop issuing all reports to the media.