HIPAA and Law Enforcement

I had a phone consultation with an author who wanted to discuss HIPPA.

As you know, HIPAA is a set of laws designed to protect patient privacy.

Here’re links to a previous series I did on HIPAA: Part I, Part II, and Part III.

His question centered around whether or not law enforcement was privy to medical info.

In the pediatric ER– we will readily discuss medical issues with law enforcement because it usually deals with us reporting child abuse. Police also need information so they know the degree of serious bodily injury (or SBI) to determine if charges should be pressed.

However, I didn’t know much about how my adult ER compatriots generally approached the issue. HIPAA is difficult to understand in its entirety and most healthcare professionals are apt to err on the side of providing no information rather than get in trouble for giving out information that they shouldn’t.

Keep in mind that the main crux of this law was also to give you the power to always view your medical information. A hospital or medical provider cannot keep your records from you. Even if you are in the hospital– you should be able to ask to see documents. What the hospital may do is have a representative sit with you to “watch” you so 1. you don’t tamper with the record and 2. they can explain the medical lingo.

Unfortunately, some places make it challenging for patients to get their information. You should absolutely have to sign a medical release form. But after that, I’ve known of hospitals to state it can be up to two weeks or more for records and that they may charge you for the copying of each page. That can be frustrating experiences for families.

Pertaining to this author’s question– come to find out through a little research for said author, that HIPAA does allow for discussions with law enforcement personnel.

Here is the particular section that pertained directly to the authors question from this link:

Law Enforcement Purposes. Covered entities may disclose protected health information to law enforcement officials for law enforcement purposes under the following six circumstances, and subject to specified conditions: (1) as required by law (including court orders, court-ordered warrants, subpoenas) and administrative requests; (2) to identify or locate a suspect, fugitive, material witness, or missing person; (3) in response to a law enforcement official’s request for information about a victim or suspected victim of a crime; (4) to alert law enforcement of a person’s death, if the covered entity suspects that criminal activity caused the death; (5) when a covered entity believes that protected health information is evidence of a crime that occurred on its premises; and (6) by a covered health care provider in a medical emergency not occurring on its premises, when necessary to inform law enforcement about the commission and nature of a crime, the location of the crime or crime victims, and the perpetrator of the crime.34

Just goes to show you what you can learn whilst doing some research!

Author Beware: The Law– HIPAA (3/3)

Today, I’m concluding my three-part series on the HIPAA law. I’m going to focus on how I’ve seen it violated in published works of fiction.

Image by Neven Divkovic from Pixabay

Situation 1: A hard-nosed journalist makes entry into the hospital and begins asking the staff about a current patient. One nurse pulls him aside and gives him the information. This is a clear violation of HIPAA. All media requests will go through the public relations office. For any information to be released, the patient needs to give their permission.

Situation 2: A nurse on duty calls her friend and notifies her that another victim involved in a crime spree, that her sister was a victim of, is an inpatient at her hospital. Again, unless that person has provided direct care to the patient or the patient gives their consent for the information to be released, the nurse is in violation of HIPAA. However, the author of this particular manuscript handled it well. At least she had the character divulge that she could get in “big trouble” if upper management found out what she’d done. Think back to Brittney Spears in Part One of this series.

Situation 3: A small town high school mascot falls ill on the field during a football game and is rushed to the hospital. A paramedic takes him to the ER. When the paramedic’s wife arrives, she inquires about his condition. The paramedic/husband tells her what the doctors found. Again, the wife is not providing direct medical care to the patient. This paramedic has violated the patient’s HIPAA rights by divulging this information to his spouse. Now, I understand, in small towns– this information may “leak out”. A better way for the author to have handled this would have been to have the wife of the fallen mascot tell this woman what his diagnosis was. HIPAA doesn’t apply to family members and they can willingly share information with who they wish. That may not make the patient very happy— ahh . . . another area of conflict!

Have you seen HIPAA violations in works of fiction that you’ve read?

Author Beware: The Law– HIPAA (Part 2/3)

Situations involving minors can be an easy way to increase conflict in your manuscript. Here is an easy area to use.

Minors presenting to the ED for evaluation of a pregnancy or STD related complaint.

Here’s a set-up. Mother brings her 14 y/o daughter in to “get checked for pregnancy”. Okay, great. Already we have inherent conflict. After all, if the daughter was in agreement about allowing her mother to know this information, they could have done a home pregnancy test and matter solved.

At times, parents will bring their children to the ER thinking that, because they’ve signed them in as a patient and they’re the parent, we’ll have to do as they ask and they’ll learn the information that way.

This isn’t the case. Will we do the pregnancy test? Maybe. The patient has to be willing. Will we relay the pregnancy test results to the parent? If the 14 y/o patient says “no” then we will not.

Most states have laws surrounding minors and issues related to pregnancy or STD’s is protected information and can only be released to the patient. Depending on the state, the cut-off is 13 or 14 years. This is different from us giving information about a follow-up culture for strep throat.

I’ve had parents call back for these types of test results. Nope, can’t give you the information.

Another area is that minor patients can sign themselves into the ER without parental consent for these matters as well. Generally, for all other conditions, we have to make attempts to get the parent on the phone for verbal consent witnessed by two individuals.

What do we do?

As healthcare providers, we really do try and facilitate open dialogue between the parent and child. We’ll sit with the 14 y/o daughter privately and go over why it would be best for her to share this information, regardless of the results, with an adult.

Can you think of other healthcare situations involving minors that could be high areas of conflict?

Author Beware: The Law– HIPAA (Part 1/3)

Several months ago, I was watching a local TV news station when a nurse manager was being interviewed about the fact that you could look up ER wait times on the Internet before checking in. That’s a whole other can of worms I won’t get into today but the problem with her interview was that the camera shot included her standing next to their patient tracking board in which you could clearly see the last name of the patient, their age, and their medical complaint.

Stock Photo by Sean Locke
http://www.digitalplanetdesign.com

I almost fell out of my chair. This was a clear HIPAA violation and that ER manager should have known better than to be standing anywhere near that board.

Each time you visit the doctor’s office or sign into the urgent care or emergency department for treatment, you should be given a paper that outlines your rights under HIPAA which stands for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. It basically outlines rules on how to deal with a patient’s “protected health information” or PHI.

What this boils down to for the bedside clinical worker falls into a couple of areas and I’ll give some examples below.

1. I should be providing direct care to a patient or should have provided recent care in order to look up their chart. Some of you may remember the healthcare workers that were fired for accessing Brittney Spears medical information. They were likely fired under this provision.

2. I can’t share any specific information (name–never, age, and complaint) listed together in areas where other’s could become aware of the patient’s visit. This would include areas like social media (a big no-no). When cases are presented at medical conferences, generally all patient information is blacked out (say on x-rays). And the patient is only spoken of in general terms. Such as: 16y/o presented to the ER for evaluation of neck pain. Now, across the USA for one day, probably several patients presented with this complaint so how do you know which one it was?

3. I shouldn’t be sharing patient information with my spouse unless he has provided direct care to the patient as well. Therefore, since my husband is an accountant, I can’t say— “Oh, by the way our neighbor’s daughter was seen for a broken arm today in the ER.” Unless I’ve asked the mother specifically if it’s all right that I mention this to my husband, I have violated that patient’s rights by sharing that information with my spouse. Working in pediatrics, I’ve been in the situation often and don’t mention the visit at all when home.

4. Requests for information about a patient from the media generally go through the public relation’s office. This tends to happen more off hours, a reporter will get through to the ER desk and begin to ask questions. Most, if not all hospitals, are very firm that all media inquiries go through public relations. This allows them to control the message.

5. Patient information cannot be given over the phone unless specified by permission. This is why, when you fill out those HIPAA forms at your doctor’s office, they generally ask who they can talk to and what kind of information they can share. Perhaps you don’t want your husband to know why you were at the OB’s office. A caveat to this is giving information to your personal physician who is following up on your ER complaint. We will generally give specifics for this because they are providing your follow-up care.

Next post I’ll talk specifically about HIPAA and minors.