When A Town Ignores Patients Privacy Rights
By Tammy Duffy
Imagine going to an Aids clinic, an ob/gyn clinic or any kind of disease clinic and that night, you see yourself on the evening news. Imagine buying your newspaper in the morning after the prior day having gone to a clinic; and you see your face posted all over the internet, in the local and national newspapers. If you do not think this can happen, it can, if you live in Hamilton, N.J., Mercer County. This recently occurred during two Hepatitis clinics in December.
( I will not repost the links to the area newspapers and news crews that were filming and photographing at the clinics in respect of the privacy of the patients)
In 1996, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA was established. It is a set of laws passed by congress in part to protect people’s medical privacy.
As you know we live by HIPAA in the USA. If you have a friend or family member in the hospital and they have not told the hospital you are allowed to get their results, you cannot get them. If you do get them, the hospital is hit with very large fines and the person who gave them instantly fired in most cases. Hospitals and outpatients have policies established that they implement to ensure they follow the HIPAA guidelines. It is the law.
What happens when a town’s leadership thinks they are above the law and have no concern for anyone’s privacy around you? What happens when there are no policies to protect patient’s rights at the health clinics performed by the town?
Recently, in Hamilton, NJ, there was one food handler who was diagnosed with Hepatitis A. The restaurant involved was dragged through the mud by the media and the township officials. This has created a large economic hardship for the restaurant. Is it no coincidence that the restaurant is owned by one of old Mayors of the same town. Being an observer of this behavior has been quite despicable for residents in the town. There were 35 people who contracted the enterovirus at restaurant in Princeton. The same media mayhem was not evident.
The township of Hamilton set up two hepatitis clinics to give everyone hepatitis A vaccines. We won’t go into how poorly this was all orchestrated, for that would need to be another column. However, I will share one tidbit. The Hamilton Township Health director was telling those of us who already had gotten the HepA vaccine in our lifetime, a vaccine that is good for life, to get a booster shot. However, there is no booster shot available. There is not one manufacturer of hepA vaccines that has ever created a booster. This information comes from the 2 manufactures of the vaccines (Merck and GSK), the CDC and a physician in Princeton. The vaccine is only effective if given within two weeks of first onset of symptoms by the host. The clinics were set up and the public was notified three weeks after that first magic day of symptom onset. When false information is given to the public it creates confusion and social unrest.
The media strolled into the hepatitis clinics with cameras, videocameras, etc and videoed and photographed all the people who attended the hepatitis clinic. Google this and you will find the video and photos. The people waiting in line were also videoed and photographed. I have always been taught from my 30 years of working in a hospital settings, NEVER photograph or video a patient, against HIPAA. Unless of course there is a release from the patient allowing this to happen. There were no releases signed by the patients who attended these recent clinics.
Several months ago there was a press conference for the unfortunate loss of a little boy in the same town from EVD68. The school nurse that attended a press conference and was on stage, left a file on the stage after the press conference. This file was picked up by the media and demonstrated the township files and medical information on children from the school. This nurse should never have even been at the press conference. When this issue was brought to the attention of the towns leadership, there was no response.
Facilities, hospitals, clinics, outpatient centers all have policies that ban photography and video from being done in their establishments without written permission from the facility and the patients. I question why the town felt it was more important to photograph the mayor and all those who attended. The mayor has rights to her privacy as well. It’s her health record. Why does the township not have any policies that protect the rights of people who attend the clinics? This is quite disturbing. This will cause people to not use the clinics due to fear that their medical information will end up on the national news.
One of the hepatitis clinics was performed at a local firehouse. Clearly, they have no policies about media involvement during healthcare clinics. There clearly needs to be optimization of the health clinics that the town is involved in. Recently, in October there was a flu clinic held at an event in Hamilton where the vaccines were not refrigerated. I also noticed in the media photos and video on the hepatitis clinic that there the vaccines were on the table. I did not see any coolers to keep the hepatitis vaccines that need to be kept at 36-46 degrees F. I can only hope they did not make that same mistake again. If so, then everyone like at the flu clinic will have to get the vaccines again.
The public’s medical privacy should never be ignored. Congress implemented laws in 1996 to protect the public. HIPAA is a law. You are your own best advocate for privacy when it comes to ensuring the rules of HIPAA are being followed both inside and outside of the doctor’s office. Only you can protect yourself, do not expect leadership to do it.