HIPAA: Privacy and the Press

An interesting editorial ran this past Sunday in the Mason City, Iowa Globe Gazette about HIPAA, “The Price of Privacy: HIPAA has far-ranging implications
The title intrigued me. Yes, indeed there will be far-ranging implications to effectively start handling protected health information (PHI) in ways that will protect privacy.

The first section highlights some journalists upset that reporters no longer have access to the PHI they used to commonly put in their publications.

“An unfortunate consequence of the law and of the desire for more privacy, Buttweiler said, is that readers do not have easy access to information they once did about their neighbors, whether it be about new babies or someone being admitted to the community hospital.
‚ÄúIt used to be that newspapers reported those things comprehensively,‚Äù Buttweiler said. ‚ÄúFor readers, it was a nice way to find out whom to send a card to or call to offer help.‚Äù”

I grew up in a very small, rural area in Missouri. I regularly read those small town papers. Our papers reported everything from who had supper with whom the night before, all the way to the aches, pains and ailments that caused people to visit the local physician, Dr. Wilson. Yes, everyone loved to read about everyone else’s problems, social activities, and other juicy tidbits. As a result many people, at various times, experienced extreme embarassment, chastisement, or the grim results of outright fabrications growing out of misinterpreted published “facts.”

“‚ÄúIt was originally enacted to protect medical information in the context of medical insurance and transferring it among doctors. Limiting it to reporters was an unintended consequence of this.”

Huh? Was it really an unintended consequence? Protecting privacy is okay, but that shouldn’t prevent giving PHI to reporters to publish? Hmm…

“Tonda Rush, of Arlington, Va., public policy director for the National Newspaper Association, said HIPAA has had ‚Äúa huge impact‚Äù on journalists. ‚ÄúI think we‚Äôve cut a hole out of the connectedness of the human community by making this privacy law as sweeping as it has been,‚Äù she said. For journalists, it’s been a delicate balance between the HIPAA privacy laws and public access laws guaranteed in the First Amendment. ‚ÄúHIPAA ended disclosures that in the past were part of a tradition,‚Äù Rush said.”

Gee, imagine that, thinking that “tradition” is more important to preserve than preserving the privacy of patients?

“Patients who choose a standard admission allow hospital employees to release pertinent information, such as their medical condition and room number to family, and a simple condition report to the media.”

And they can also request to keep their PHI private. Isn’t that the way it should be? Shouldn’t we be able to make the decision of whether or not to let anyone else…particularly strangers reading the newspaper…know we are fighting cancer, have had a heart attack, or are recovering from an accident…or worse? Doesn’t giving patients the right to keep their own health problems to themselves seem right, but still allow them to tell the media if THEY make the choice? Why isn’t that okay with most journalists?
HIPAA makes allowances for releasing information if public health is at risk, so that is not a valid argument for journalists against HIPAA.
There are points of view within the story supporting HIPAA and the results it has had with keeping PHI information from the press. And there were also points made about HIPAA impacts on pharmacists, in nursing homes, the clergy, and law enforcement. The reporter did try to provide a balanced view.
Yes, misinterpretations of HIPAA have had negative impacts. More awareness is needed. However, the journalist issue just really hit a nerve. Patients should not lose their privacy just because of journalistic “tradition.”

Tags: , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply