HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Akron Univ. School of Law

A Member of the Law Professor Blogs Network

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Are Health Care Providers Deliberately Misunderstanding HIPAA--And if So What You Can Do About it?

Ever since HIPAA was implemented in 2002, it has been used by health care providers to make life more difficult for patients by preventing their family members from being with them in care areas and by refusing to share information with those the patient wants to be kept informed.   This has caught the interest of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Sub-Committee  has been holding hearings into various consumer issues regarding HIPAA.  I think this review is long overdue--and that  HHS is well aware of how providers are misusing HIPAA. The problems are so prevalent that the HHS website actually has a myth-buster section

So what can a family do?  A good step is to be skeptical when told that something is being done "because of the law."  As I have explained again and again to health care providers and lawyers, “If you think something that a) the patient or his family wants or b) is in the best interests of his care is prohibited by HIPAA, you don’t understand HIPAA.”  Ask for clarification from the hospital's lawyer--will you get that person on first call?  Maybe not, but be persistent.

 Inform yourself on the HHS website.  There is also a very useful FAQ section that addresses questions like, “is it illegal for a family member to pick up a prescription for a patient” (no) and  It starts with an over-all statement of principle: “The Privacy Rule provides federal protections for personal health information held by covered entities, and gives patients an array of rights with respect to that information. At the same time, the Privacy Rule is balanced so that it permits the disclosure of personal health information needed for patient care and other important purposes.”

Moreover, there is no provision in HIPAA that requires or allows a health provider to step in as “guardian of privacy” for a patient who is not conscious or competent.  When there is an identifiable surrogate decision maker, that person can make any decision about disclosure that the patient could have made himself.   And, no, there need not be any written document expressly allowing sharing of information with the surrogate.  Moreover, if a person has legal authority to make medical decisions, then he is entitled to review the medical records so that the decision can be an informed one.

At this point, more than ten years later, it’s reasonable to wonder if some of these “misunderstandings” are fostered by the fact that they make things easier for the providers in that it limits time consuming questions—like, “why isn’t my mother receiving pain medication?”  or “what are our options for Mom’s care?”  Certainly the posts in this nursing blog suggests that’s the case.  Here’s my favorite from Ortho-RN, “We usually don't allow family in the recovery room... I don't feel it's a place where family belongs.. No privacy, totally in HIPPA violations. Families like to be nosey and watch other things, and things do not always go smoothley...” (sic) Here’s another insight into how  providers see their obligations

 A brief foray into common sense should demonstrate the absurdity of these restrictive interpretations.  The  premise should be that outside a few narrow health & safety exceptions,  no one other than the patient is in a better position to decide who can and cannot have information about the medical care being provided.  And keeping family members away because of the risk they will see "other patients" is an absurdity.  None of us have the right to receive health care in complete seclusion.  Maybe high profile patients can pay for private wings—but all of us are stuck with the reality that in going to receive health care we may well be seen by other people, including those who know us. Finally, health care providers themselves are not entitled to protection from the observations and questions of family and friends about the care of their loved ones.  Could there be times during an emergency when the team can't stop and talk.  Sure.  But if these would be reasonable requests for information from the patient, then they are reasonable from the people the patient trusts most to protect his interests. 

 

 

May 30, 2013 in Health Law, HHS, HIPAA, Hospitals, Nurses, Physicians, Policy, privacy | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Lessons About Medical Error Learned Watching I Love Lucy.

It's no secret that the night staff of a hospital are both over-worked and over-tired.   Nor is it any secret that many medical errors occur at night.  But until we look at the totality of the human factors making up medical error, we are unlikely to make significant headway in addressing it.  A review of the literature suggests that the reason isn't a lack of understanding about the factors which cause human errors, it's concern about the cost of addressing them.

The authors of a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association titled, Relationship Between Occurrence of Surgical Complications and Hospital Finances conclude that not only aren’t hospitals doing all they can to reduce medical errors, they actually have no financial incentives to do so.  

I'd suggest that financial incentives are behind ineffective efforts to address the issues of staff over-work and the inherent dangers of intermittent shift work.

 It's no surprise that another widely reported recent study has found that reductions in the hours medical residents work has not resulted in increased patient safety.   The study authors conclude that this is because although residents worked less hours, they did not have a reduced work load So, like Lucille Ball in the chocolate factory, the trying to cram more work in the same amount of time increased resident error.  

The findings of that study need to be seen in combination with the vast amount of scientific research on the increase in errors caused during night shifts.   A recent study of nurses working night shifts showed that “on average, the error rate increase 6% after the second night shift in a row, 17% after the third successive night shift and an astounding 35% higher on the fourth night shift.”  See also this and this article by the Joint Commission.  Although no one disputes the reality that human beings perform best in the day time, every hospital must be fully staffed 24 hours a day.  The information is both anecdotal and research based.   But no one seems to be listening.

 An article in Nursing World  does an excellent job of using available research to describe the scope of the problem, but implies that it can be effectively addressed by nurses proactively paying more attention to their sleep patterns.  It advises nurses working the night shift to “take control of sleep.”  In fact the NSF “recommends that nurses wear wrap around sunglasses when driving home so the body is less aware that it is daylight.”    This advice ignores the scientific reality that humans are not as effective or alert at night as they are in the day time.  Nor does it consider the human reality that medical shift workers do not have the luxury of using their days to sleep.  Like everyone else living in a diurnal world, they must cope with the tasks of family and daily living.

 Techniques like wearing dark glasses may work in making a shift to a new rhythm--like travelling to another time zone.   But given the unlikeliness of medical staff to convert to a  permanent change in their circadian rhthyms, as if they were working in a submarine (and that doesn’t work very well either)  the answer is to address the reality that humans are less effective at recognizing problems and completing complex tasks at night.   But that’s not where the problem solving is going. 

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May 25, 2013 in Cost, Effectiveness, Health Care, Health Care Costs, Health Care Reform, Health Economics, Health Law, Hospital Finances, Hospitals, Insurance, Medical Malpractice, Nurses, Patient Safety, Payment, Physicians, Policy, Public Health, Quality, Quality Improvement, Reform, Research, Science and Health, Substance Abuse | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)