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There are many tales of mistaken leaks of medical information. Occasionally there is a computer glitch allowing unauthorized people to access information. Files left out in plain view can be picked up by anyone passing by. Sometimes one simple error can lead to a violation of the HIPAA privacy regulations for thousands of patients. This can be terrible.
Even more appalling are the intentional information leaks. A famous person is treated at a medical facility and one of the medical staff copies their file and sells it to a magazine. Believe it or not, a relative of a medical worker stole a spreadsheet that contained patients’ contact info and contacted them to to tell them they were HIV positive as a joke. Some of these situations make us wonder in disbelief.
An important question is raised when it comes to privacy violations, whether it’s unintentional or not. Is there ever an instance that makes it ok be in violation of HIPAA rules? Is there ever a time when there is something more important than protecting a patient’s privacy? Are there times when keeping a patients’ information private might cause them—or others—more harm than good?
First, we need to acknowledge a couple things. The previous examples are undoubtedly wrong on the part of the HIPAA violators and harmful to the victims—psychologically, emotionally, and financially. Many times it is obvious that HIPAA regulations result in protecting patient privacy. Personal financial gains should never be the result of exploiting someones medical information. In addition, spreading inaccurate information about someones health should never be done by anyone. That is clear. However, what about the gray areas?
What about public safety? Is there ever a time when it is better for the safety and health of the public to disclose health information about an individual? What about highly contagious diseases – should schools and workplaces be notified in order to protect others? Due to HIPAA, you are required to protect that persons privacy, but what about the health of others that could be negativly affected by being around them? Certainly the health of those individuals are not any less important.
What about the patient’s own safety and well-being? Physicians have access to a large amount of personal information. According to HIPAA, he must keep that info private. What if a doctor is aware of a recent suicide attempt and thinks it would be beneficial to notify a family member to have them keep an eye on the patient and offer support? Is it better to guard the patient’s privacy or his life?
These questions are not easy to answer. But in a world that has become so obsessed with safeguarding the privacy of the individual, maybe it is time to stop and ask ourselves “Is there a downside to so much privacy?”