Hospitals err on the safe side for patient information--even for families

Protecting patient privacy can sometimes become a balancing act for hospitals, especially when staff or patients themselves choose to keep key information from friends and family, according to Kaiser Health News.

The federal government has stepped up its enforcement of HIPAA in recent years, giving hospitals an incentive to opt for a "better safe than sorry" approach, the article notes. Even breaches that affect only a few patients can have broader consequences, although federal authorities are typically less vigilant in such cases, FierceHealthcare previously reported. However, HIPAA actually provides fairly broad leeway in terms of disclosures to family members, Jane Hyatt Thorpe of George Washington University's department of health policy, told Kaiser Health News.

Disclosure laws also vary by state, and in many cases they are more restrictive than HIPAA, according to the article, while others simply echo federal law.

"If the physician thinks it's in [the] patient's best interest to share information with mom or dad or whatever, they may do so," she said. Providers are generally permitted to disclose information to family and friends for patients who are unable to give permission. However, doctors and providers still have discretion when patients are conscious and capable of making their own decisions.

But a hospital's decision to keep details about Sean Meyer's condition may have contributed to his death, according to the article. Meyers was badly injured in a car accident and rushed to Inova Fairfax Hospital in Virginia, where his parents immediately visited him but were given only very basic information about his condition, according to the article. Soon after leaving the hospital, Meyers collapsed and died. An autopsy revealed he had an enlarged heart and several blood clots. If Meyers' parents had more complete information about his condition, combined with their own knowledge of the family's medical history, it might have saved their son's life, they told the publication. 

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