Proof’s Problem with HIPAA

Proof (not to be confused with my debut medical thriller with the same title) is a medical drama starring Jennifer Beals as renowned cardiothoracic surgion Dr. Carolyn Tyler.

Dr. Tyler is recruited by billionaire Ivan Turing to investigate near death experiences (NDEs) as he is soon to face the other side due to a terminal cancer diagnosis.

Tyler is a skeptical atheist and believes death is the end– even though she’s had a NDE herself and longs to reconnect with her teenage son who died in a car accident.

Of course, Turing uses his wealth and a big donation to the hospital to obtain Tyler’s cooperation.

Through the course of her investigations, nearly every religious permutation of the after life is explored– past lives, reincarnation, and soul jumping among them.

The issue becomes when families become aware of Tyler’s investigations and want information that in real life she should never disclose. They’re clearly HIPAA violations. I’ve blogged extensively on HIPAA here, here, here, here and here!

Why is HIPAA so important? It is the law. It’s what healthcare workers are instructed (pounded into the head) to protect every single day. It’s not taken lightly. Medical people have been fired for violating a patient’s privacy by disclosing healthcare related information.

However, the television show Proof seems to not understand what HIPAA entails.

In one instance, a mother who lost her son begins to believe his soul has inhabited another child’s body because he has the same rare blood type, same rare heart condition, and was a piano playing genius. The mother latches onto him and offers to pay for his medical care.

It becomes a sticky situation because the mother who lost her child begins to overstep her bounds and Dr. Tyler begins to believe she’s at risk for kidnapping this other boy over the loss of her son.

To prevent her from taking that step, she begins to list a litany of medical reasons why this patient isn’t her son. The problem is, this mother has no right to any of this information. It is a HIPAA violation.

In another instance, Dr. Tyler convinces a wife to donate her brain dead husband’s heart. Now, she has a vested interest in this happening because one of her patient’s with a rare blood type (evidently everyone in this show has a rare blood type) has been waiting for a heart for years and is running out of time.

The wife agrees and the heart is transplanted but the patient nearly rejects the heart. When the wife of the heart donor catches wind that this has happened (she seems to be hanging around the hospital after the donation has occurred) Dr. Tyler gives her detailed medical information on how the patient who received her husband’s heart is doing.

Again, this wife, even though she donated her husband’s heart, has no right to this information. In fact, donor and recipient identities are highly protected. It’s not that these families never meet but it usually happens months after and is coordinated by the organ bank and not doctors on site.

In fiction, you can break the rules. Healthcare workers can disclose medical information but they should also face a consequence for it just like we do in real life. The plus, it dramatically increases the tension which is always the goal of any work of fiction.

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