Hospital privacy rules tightened

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 21, 2003

Imagine that someone you know has been hospitalized, someone close to you. A friend, perhaps, or maybe even a relative.

Now imagine that &045;&045; being raised in the South by a mama who tried her dead-level best to drum at least some manners into you &045;&045; you’ve bought flowers and a card and asked that they be delivered to your dear one’s room. Tonight you plan to drop in for a brief visit. Your mama would be proud.

Brace yourself. Mama never had to deal with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996.

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Under new federal privacy rules outlined in the act, unless your friend has chosen to be listed in the hospital’s directory of patients, you won’t be allowed to visit. Not even if it’s your Aunt Bertha.

And those flowers and that card you bought will have to be returned to the florist. In fact, the hospital staff will not even confirm whether Aunt Bertha is a patient.

Although the act was passed in 1996, the privacy rules it mandates did not officially go into effect until Monday. Officials at Vaughan Regional Medical Center are trying to get the word out to prevent any misunderstandings that might arise from those new rules.

According to Dunn, most of those measures involve internal changes to hospital procedures and policies and won’t even be noticed by the majority of patients or their families.

Those requirements deal with such things as stricter controls on access to medical records and a greater emphasis on preventing the casual display of such records, such as leaving a patient’s chart out in the open at a nursing station.

That’s all well and good. But the act also requires that patients be given a &uot;notice of privacy practice.&uot;

As part of that notice of privacy, incoming patients will be asked whether or not they wish to be listed in the hospital’s directory of patients. Pendley and Dunn urged patients to consider well before they answer.

While at first glance it might seem that the more privacy the better when it comes to one’s medical information, incoming patients who &uot;opt out&uot; might get more privacy than they bargained for.

Said Pendley, &uot;People need to understand that to opt out of our directory may have repercussions they don’t fully understand at the time.&uot;

Opting out could affect whether patients are able to receive mail, visitors or even flowers.

For example, if a patient has opted not to be listed, visitors will be told simply, &uot;There is no one here in our registry by that name&uot; &045;&045; even if the visitor is a relative of the patient.

Flowers and mail will also be returned &045;&045; because to accept them would be to acknowledge the patient’s presence in the hospital, which the act expressly forbids.

Pendley said that while the hospital recognizes that the new rules create at least the potential for misunderstandings, &uot;it’s the hospital’s responsibility to comply with the law.&uot;

Dunn said that in addition to training staff members, the hospital is also training volunteers to comply with the new law.

Dunn added that when the hospital launches its planned web site, the notice of privacy practice will be posted online. She encouraged anyone contemplating a hospital stay to read the notice prior to being admitted.