As a business leader, you focus on protecting and doing right by your customers. In healthcare, we do the same — starting with patient privacy.
From the moment patients walk or roll through our doors, they’re protected by Wisconsin law, the Federal HIPAA Privacy Law, and their own personal preferences.
ThedaCare is required to share our notice of privacy practices with every patient who registers for the first time. This document describes how medical information about patients may be used. Registration staff also ask whether patients are okay with us acknowledging that they’re in our facilities if someone calls asking for them. If not, we manage their care as an “unpublished patient,” which means we will not tell anyone—even their families—that they are in the hospital.
Patient rights and preferences outweigh any family inquiries, neighborly concerns, or employer requests. If a community member calls into our hospital switchboard hoping to learn news of a friend’s condition, for example, our desk staff have records on the patients for whom they can release information and those for whom they can’t. In addition to patient preference, federal and state requirements guide any release of information by us.
When newsworthy healthcare incidents occur in our area, we inevitably get questions: Why do we say what we say? Why can’t we say certain things? The truth is, sometimes a hospital can’t share the same details as law enforcement. Until a patient’s name is released by a public entity like police, for example, we can only share high-level information like age, gender and town of residence. If a patient has asked us not to share information, we honor that. We even have a specific statement we use if media ask us and we’re unable to share.
Instead, you might hear us provide a patient’s general condition level, which is allowed in the following categories:
Undetermined. Patient is awaiting physician assessment.
Good. Vital signs are stable and within normal limits. Patient is conscious and comfortable. Indicators are excellent.
Fair. Vital signs are stable and within normal limits. Patient is conscious, but may be uncomfortable. Indicators are favorable.
Serious. Vital signs may be unstable and not within normal limits. Patient is acutely ill. Indicators are questionable.
Critical. Vital signs are unstable and not within normal limits. Patient may be unconscious. Indicators are unfavorable.
Treated and released.
Despite what TV shows tell you, “stable” is not an accurate description of a patient’s condition.
In special situations like sexual assault, suicide or mental illness, we do not release any information, and Wisconsin law states only the parent or legal guardian may authorize the disclosure of medical information for aminor. We also can’t describe the nature of a patient’s accident or injuries under HIPAA without written authorization from the patient. Once a person is no longer our patient, we cannot share further detail.
Overall, we want to respect patients, respect their families, and respect HIPAA regulations.
Too often, people think they have a “right to know” in high-profile medical incidents. I like to say that’s baloney. We don’t want to share anything for patients that we wouldn’t want shared about ourselves in those vulnerable moments.
Because information is so widely available in today’s day and age, YOU can help families too by being circumspect. If you hear of a story on the news or social media involving serious medical care, think of the family first. And be respectful. It’s the right thing to do.
— Dr. Dean Gruner is president and CEO of Appleton-based ThedaCare. To send your thoughts to him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.