Working in the field of journalism, one of the issues that challenges a reporter on story assignments involves HIPAA, stringent medical privacy regulations that went into effect back in 2003. Since its implementation, reporters have had to learn how to work around those situations during their news gathering duties.
It can sometimes be a little maddening, especially with agencies that don't understand what they can and cannot tell us. In general, HIPAA — an acronym for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act — protects an individual's "identifiable health information" not only when it comes to the media but in all other public disclosure situations.
Except when you're sharing a hospital room with another patient.
To be clear, HIPAA allows for normal hospital and physician operations and they are allowed to discuss patient care for treatment purposes. As a result, conversations take place and in shared rooms, it can be overheard by others, whether it be another patient or one of their visiting family members.
Information also flows freely during the nurses' shift change. That's when they're just outside the room, often within earshot of the patients, discussing care.
This all comes to mind because of a recent personal experience I had while in the hospital for colonic diverticulosis, which involved a colonoscopy to fix the issue. I was in a room that I shared with another patient who was going through the horrible ordeal of an amputation. Our beds were separated only by a curtain.
I found it nearly impossible to not hear about the man's medical situation, including his fears and concerns through phone calls and visits from family. Whiteboards hang on the wall of the hospital room with little tidbits of information, in his case cellphone numbers of relatives and in my case, height, weight and wife's name.
The part of the hospital visit that initially made me think about HIPAA came during the admissions process. Sitting in my hospital bed, a nurse at the front of the room was on a computer asking me a long series of medial history questions, and some of them were very private.
These two questions stick out in my mind: "Are you thinking about suicide" or something similar was asked. "Have you ever attempted suicide in your life" was the follow-up question.
Now, if someone was in their hospital bed answering those type of personal questions, would they answer honestly if they knew another patient and possibly his family member was on the other side of the curtain listening?
I never talked to the patient in my room. He was in no condition to strike up a conversation with someone he didn't know. But I felt an odd connection to him after overhearing his struggles through our 34 hours together. I hope he's going to be OK.
I wouldn't be surprised if hospitals will someday be forced to eliminate shared rooms entirely because of patient privacy issues. We might be headed toward private rooms only and that prospect brings up a whole new set of challenges, such as the number of available beds for patients and building construction and renovation costs.
To be clear on HIPAA, it was actually passed by Congress in 1996, followed by another privacy bill in 1999, a final rule in 2000 and modifications in 2002. Health care organizations were required to comply beginning in April 2003.
As mentioned, HIPAA can be an issue on certain stories, usually involving folks hurt or killed in car crashes. On one occasion not too long ago, the organization being questioned wouldn't even tell the newspaper whether it was a male or female, which I don't believe falls under "identifiable health information."
I think back to the HIPAA paperwork that I electronically signed in the emergency room during the first hour. It was an assurance from the hospital that my personal information would not be shared. But I wonder if I should've scrutinized the fine print for an exception to the rule ... "except in shared hospital rooms."