Protecting HIPAA in Our Digital Age

HIPAA. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996. You know, that four-hour class we have to take every year to recertify our licensure. The paper we have every patient sign after we’ve explained to them their rights to not have their personal, protected health information disclosed to anyone without their permission. Chances are, we’ve recited it so many times per shift that we know it by heart.

And we’re violating it every day.

It’s not like we’re doing it with any malicious intent; but we live in a nanosecond, digital age. We move at the speed of thought. If you can think it, it’s already on social media. It’s easy to do, and most times we don’t give it a second thought.

Ever run on a really bad wreck and post a picture on Facebook for your other EMS buddies to see? You may not have identified the patient, but anyone seeing it that knows them can probably recognize the car, the intersection and the time of day and quickly deduce it’s their relative/friend/neighbor/coworker/whomever.

Most agencies have rules about posting anything work-related on your personal social media accounts, but it is tough to enforce. I’ve seen pictures in my own Facebook and Twitter feeds of my peers posing with passed out drunks, and read really detailed accounts of calls they just ran in which you can all but name the address of the frequent flyer.

hipaaIt’s funny at the time, but we really need to stop the practice. Why? Because if you’re caught violating a patient’s privacy and it can be proven, you will face hefty criminal and civil penalties. Really it is not worth the hassle. We have enough liability out there as it is.

Let me give you the exact legal definition, in case you napped during the four-hour recert class.  According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act says this:  “The HIPAA Privacy Rule establishes national standards to protect individuals’ medical records and other personal health information and applies to health plans, health care clearinghouses, and those health care providers that conduct certain health care transactions electronically.  The Rule requires appropriate safeguards to protect the privacy of personal health information, and sets limits and conditions on the uses and disclosures that may be made of such information without patient authorization. The Rule also gives patients rights over their health information, including rights to examine and obtain a copy of their health records, and to request corrections”.

So let’s take a look at how we mess this up every day:

  • Leaving run reports or hospital face sheets on the dashboard of the unit or the front seat for the world to see.
  • Setting your computer down anywhere in the ER or on scene or at a facility and walking away, even for a moment.
  • Facebooking, Tweeting or Snapchatting about the celebrity you just transported.
  • Sharing that pic of the horrible wreck you just ran on all over social media.
  • Letting everyone know that you just transported a coworker, why you transported them, and gosh you hope they feel better.
  • Making off-color jokes or comments in a public place about the patient you just dropped off; someone is ALWAYS listening. Take my word on this.
  • Waiting in line for food, getting dispatched for a person you’ve run on three times that day, and screaming “IT’S (so-and-so) AGAIN!!” for the restaurant to hear.
  • Complaining to your current patient about your last patient.
  • Posting about the fatal gunshot wound you just ran; if it was the only person shot that day in your district, guess what? At the rate things go viral, you just notified everybody about it. Facebook is a horrible way to find out someone close to you has been killed.
  • Leaving a face sheet in the rig at the end of shift.
  • Answering some pushy neighbor’s questions over your shoulder as you’re carrying your patient out – just to make them go away.

I could go on, but you get the point. We all need to vent, we all need our EMS peer support network to bounce calls and outcomes off of, but we need to be smarter about it. Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but it’s also the smart thing to do. Protect their rights, and protect yourself at the same time.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Leah Dallaire

Leah G. Dallaire is a highly accomplished freelance writer, editor and consultant with 28 years of experience. She has also concurrently been a paramedic for 20 years; the last 17 she spent serving the citizens of Pinellas County, Florida, which has a call volume of about 209,000 runs per year. She holds an M.A. and a B.A. in Writing & Literature from Union University. She has also just finished her first novel.
Leah Dallaire
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