HIPAA, SCHMIPA

1 05 2010

Just What We Needed-Another Silly, Incomprehensible, Vague, Impossible-to-Enforce, Tax Dollar-Wasting Law

In 1996 the Federal government, in an effort to protect our privacy regarding medical records, passed The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996-otherwise known as HIPAA. I can tell you it’s not a favorite among medical professionals. The entire world of medicine seemed to change when this law went into effect. Privacy screens were set up at clinic and doctors’ office registration desks; forms were created which required signatures of patients attesting to the fact…come to think of it, I’m not sure what those forms were for. And doctors are particularly guarded; they seem to be afraid of violating this little-understood law.

I say little-understood because I believe most people are of the erroneous opinion this law is intended to protect any and all medical information. That’s not true. I had just learned a friend and I are seeing the same cardiologist. During one visit I happened to mention I had a friend who was a patient of hers. “His name is…”

“SHHHHHHH!” she interrupted. “You can’t tell me that. It would be a HIPAA violation”.

I figured the HIPAA Police must be keeping a close watch on all clinics and hospitals. That is until I had to take my wife to the hospital.

A couple of years ago I took my wife to the emergency room-excuse me-the emergency department. When did that change and why? I’m 57 years old, and as far back as I can recall, my mother always took me to the emergency room, not the emergency department. It’s always been the ER and everyone knew it by that name; so, why did hospitals suddenly decide it was time to change the name to emergency department, or ED? Well, that’s another story. I’ll look into that on another day. Anyway, I took her where she was first seen by a nurse and then taken to a large room with a row of beds separated only by curtains- dark, thin curtains. She was instructed to disrobe and put on one of those Rubik’s hospital gowns. Why don’t those things come with instructions?

So there she was, in a bed surrounded by curtains when an administrative-type, carrying a clipboard, came in and began asking questions. She wanted to know my wife’s full name, date of birth, insurance company, social security number, home address, etc. The entire time I’m concerned with who might be on the other side of the curtains. I’m more concerned with identity theft than I am someone hearing that my wife has a stomach ache. But, eventually, this person left.

My wife continued to lie there waiting for something to happen; waiting for someone to come ask her questions related to her symptoms. After about an hour I was thinking she could lie in bed at home. Finally a doctor did come in and began asking pertinent questions. The longer we were there, the worse her symptoms became until finally they gave her something to help her sleep.

Hello, Bubba!

So my wife was passed out in the bed and I was sitting there beside her just waiting for the next thing to happen, with no idea what the next thing might be. Suddenly I heard two male voices growing louder as they came nearer. It turned out to be a doctor and another patient. The patient was placed in the curtained area next to my wife’s bed and the light in that area was turned on. It was at that moment I realized how thin those curtains were. I could see the other patient. When I say I could see him I mean I could see him as if he were in the same curtained area with my wife and me. The curtain was more like a sheet of glass, except there was no sound barrier. I could hear them as clearly as I could see them.

The doctor instructed the patient to remove his clothes and then began asking questions regarding his condition. I watched, not out of curiosity or a desire to see a fat man in black boxers, but out of disbelief. I could not believe there was so little concern for the privacy of patients.

This other patient removed his shirt revealing an eagle tattooed across his chest. The eagle’s wingtips stretched from one armpit to the other. And it was a big eagle. It was as if they were right there beside me and I was unable to turn down the volume. The doctor asked the patient about his height and weight. He was six feet tall and 265 pounds. I said it was a big eagle!

It turns out the guy had an issue with drugs as well. He revealed to the doctor how he was well acquainted with the use of heroin and cocaine and was a frequent user of marijuana. There were lots of things I learned about this other patient that I really had no desire to know.

Shortly, this same administrator came to his bedside with her clipboard. She began asking him the same questions she had asked my wife. So, let me see, I know this guy’s name, where he lives, his social security number, the fact he wears black boxers, he belongs to a motorcycle gang, uses drugs, and his last bowel movement. I think he’s safe from identity theft. No one would want to steal his identity.

Semi-Private Means No Privacy

Eventually, they decided to admit my wife. Around 2 A.M. they wheeled her upstairs to a room. When they rolled her bed into the room I realized immediately there was a lot of extra space. Hospital rooms are not spacious. I also realized there were two televisions on the wall.

This is not a private room. I think they used to call this a semi-private room. Go ahead and call it what it is-a public room. Put another patient in there and one day she (or he) will be writing a story about my wife and all of her private details.

I thought with HIPAA such shared arrangements were a thing of the past. I asked if there was any possibility they would be bringing another patient into the room.

“Yes,” they told me. “If we get short on space we might put someone else in here.”

I protested. This was not the only hospital in the area and I made it clear that we would take our business elsewhere. So later, as the sun came up, they moved my wife into a private room. How do you protect privacy of information, sensitive, very private information, when you are separated only by a curtain?

I parked outside the ER entrance so coming and going, over the next few days of my wife’s hospital stay, took me through the ER. I noticed the room in which she was first placed did fill up with two patients. I also saw patients in the ER in beds in the hall-in the hall! They didn’t even have the luxury of a curtain.

Oh well, so much for HIPAA. But don’t mention your friend’s name to your cardiologist!

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2 responses

14 06 2010
david coble

Good article.

16 06 2010
Bill Taylor

Thanks, David. Our tax dollars hard at work, huh?

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