Respecting Privacy: New Laws for Hospitals Create New Problems

Article excerpt

Byline: Sara Hooker Daily Herald Staff Writer

SPRINGFIELD - An unconscious emergency room patient loses precious time while doctors haggle with a family physician to release medical information that could save her life.

A son must take a day off work, losing pay to sit in a hospital and wait to speak to the doctor to get information about his elderly mother, information denied over the phone in the name of privacy.

Both are complications experienced at suburban hospitals since federal privacy rules, designed to give patients more control of their medical records, were implemented a year ago.

The rules, backed by stiffer penalties, can most frequently be seen in forms at doctor's offices, pharmacies and insurance companies. But the vague federal guidelines and often overzealous efforts to follow them have led to miscommunication and frustration to both doctors and patients.

Shannon Fox Fraser, chief privacy officer and staff attorney for Edward Hospital and Health Services in Naperville, said misinterpretation and ignorance of the new rules led to the emergency room drama with the unconscious woman's health information.

"I think there's been a lot of interpretation. I think there's been a lot of confusion. I think people are reading some of the regulations overly restrictive, and that has affected patient care," Fox Fraser said.

Although the privacy rules allow the transfer of health information for treatment purposes without consent, the doctor's office in this case insisted that it receive consent. Edward Hospital eventually tracked down a family member to give consent and the woman lived. But Fox Fraser said it could easily have gone a different way.

Misinterpretation

The head of the federal office that oversees the new medical privacy rules acknowledged there have been problems, but said things have improved recently.

"We're not seeing those kinds of situations as much anymore," said Richard Campanelli, director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Civil Rights. His office has received nearly 4,500 complaints in the last year.

The law remains murky when unexpected situations arise, as in an emergency where a patient is unable to give consent. The law gives doctors the power to release information on a need-to-know basis at their own discretion. Additionally, treatment information shared by health care providers for patient treatment does not require patient consent.

"The bottom line then is I think we're seeing the volume of calls and stories about confusion about the rule going down," Campanelli said. "We want to continue to work to resolve those myths."

Bill Pierce, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said there's potential for misuse in anything.

"Unfortunately some have misinterpreted it or used it to not share information," Pierce said.

As is the case in some hospitals where patients are more miffed about the perceived lack of information than worried about too much going out. …