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Friday, November 9, 2007

The nurse refused to discuss it: HIPAA and a patient’s privacy

Nurse I.Y. in Iowa wrote to an Ann Landers nurse advisory line:

Question: Recently, I cared for an 86-year-old woman admitted to my unit after a massive stroke. She was unresponsive and not expected to survive. That afternoon, her adult daughter, who lives in another state, called the nurses' station to ask about her mother’s condition. The nurse who answered the phone refused to discuss it with her, explaining that when the patient can't give consent, nurses are prohibited from disclosing any information under the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) privacy rule.

Not realizing how ill her mother was, the daughter delayed arranging her visit until the next day. When she arrived, her mother was dead.

This doesn't seem right to me. Does HIPAA really prohibit us from disclosing patient information to family members when the patient can't give consent?

Answer by the nursing Advice Editor:
No, but misunderstandings like this are common. Fearful of lawsuits or fines, many health care professionals apply the privacy rule inappropriately, withholding needed health care information from other caregivers, family members, and even patients themselves.

In fact, the HIPAA privacy rule gives health care professionals a great deal of latitude to exercise their professional judgment and common sense. On its web site, the US Dept. of Health and Human Services (HHS) addresses situations like the one you describe. When the patient is incapacitated and unable to give consent, a health care professional may share information about her care "when, in exercising professional judgment, [he] determines that doing so would be in the best interest of the patient."

Advice to family members needing to know about a loved one's condition:
See the HIPAA web site to learn what the law really says.

Read another patient privacy story, or read more from the Nursing2007 magazine's source column in the October issue.

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