From the Winter 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 42.
The local hospital can provide a wealth of news and journalists need to know how to continue to do their job in light of these regulations.
Q: Under the new medical privacy rules, can a hospital give out patient information?
Yes, but only with the patient’s consent or in specific circumstances described in the rules. Even a patient’s consent given once is not a license for continuing disclosures. The hospital must go back to the patient each time to get new consent.
Q: When can hospitals release information without a patient’s consent?
If a patient is incapacitated or in an emergency situation, hospital workers can release patients’ names, where they are located within the facility, and their status — but only in general terms. However, health care workers must consider if disclosure would be “consistent with a prior expressed preference” of the individual known to the hospital, or if disclosure would be in the patient’s best interest. They must give patients a chance to object to further disclosures as soon as they can.
Q: What constitutes an “emergency,” justifying release without consent?
Neither the regulations nor the commentary preceding them define “emergency,” although there is some discussion in the commentary about the need for emergency treatment. The rules do not preclude consideration of an “emergency” as a disaster situation in which the public would be anxious to learn who had been hurt and how seriously. An emergency could also involve the need to enlist the media’s help in finding relatives of accident victims.
Q: If the hospital will not give out the information, can I get it from an ambulance driver?
The new rules apply to a broad spectrum of health care workers specifically including ambulance drivers, pharmacists and others. However, other public workers such as policemen and firemen are not covered by these rules.