Patient Privacy at Sharp

Frequently Asked Questions About HIPAA and Sharp’s Policies for Releasing Patient Information

All health care facilities and personnel abide by a patient information privacy regulation that limits the amount of information provided to the public without patient authorization. This regulation, known by the acronym HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996), has specific implications for the media, especially when it comes to covering trauma cases.

For the media’s benefit, below are some key facts about Sharp’s HIPAA policies.

General Questions

What is HIPAA?
HIPAA is a federal law that is designed to ensure the portability of health insurance for individuals from one job to another and protect patient health information. The patient privacy portion of the regulation focusing on protecting health information from inappropriate access, use or disclosure applies to all hospitals, health care providers and health plans in the United States. The HIPAA patient privacy policy became enforceable in 2003 by the Office for Civil Rights.

What is protected health information?
Protected health information is any health information, in conjunction with any demographic information, that can be used to identify a patient and relates to health care services provided to the patient or the payment for those services. It includes all medical records and other information, which identifies the patient, such as demographic, medical and financial (in any form), electronic, paper or spoken.

To whom does HIPAA apply?
HIPAA protects every patient’s health information equally — celebrities, professional athletes, local community members, you, your family, your friends and your neighbors. There are no exceptions.

What does it mean to reporters?
Please understand that HIPAA is not reporter friendly. It is designed to protect patient privacy by preventing patient information from being given to unauthorized individuals.

Is the HIPAA privacy regulation designed with just the media in mind?
No. The privacy regulation is designed to keep protected health information private and that means limiting disclosure to more than just journalists.

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Releasing Patient Information

What information can a hospital release to the media?
If the patient has agreed to be listed in our hospital directory, we can confirm the presence of the individual in our facility if the requestor provides the patient’s name. We will also be able to provide their location in the facility in general terms (e.g., intensive care unit, emergency room) and a one-word general condition of the patient. We cannot provide the patient’s room location because it may communicate additional information that the patient or family wish to keep private (e.g., psychiatry, cardiology or maternity and labor).

Patient condition descriptions used at Sharp:

  • Undetermined — Patient is awaiting physician and/or assessment.
  • Good — Vital signs are stable and within normal limits. Patient is conscious and comfortable. Indicators are excellent.
  • Fair — Vital signs are stable and within normal limits. Patient is conscious but may be uncomfortable. Indicators are favorable.
  • Serious — Vital signs may be unstable and not within normal limits. Patient is acutely ill. Indicators are questionable.
  • Critical — Vital signs are unstable and not within normal limits. Patient may be unconscious. Indicators are unfavorable.
  • Expired — The patient has died.

If a patient decides not to be listed in the hospital directory or chooses not to have a condition released, media relations staff, the nursing supervisor on-call, or any other health care professional will not be able to provide a condition update or even acknowledge that an individual is a patient. Our response will be, "I have no information available for a person by that name.”

In the case of trauma patients, we will not be able to confirm that the patient is being treated at a Sharp hospital, nor provide a condition until the patient (or in case of incapacity, a family member) has been admitted to the hospital and decided whether or not to opt out of the hospital directory. This process can take hours or days.

If there is a natural disaster or major accident, what information can you release to the media?
To aid journalists in their stories, we can confirm whether we are or are not receiving victims of a particular accident, shooting, house fire or other event. In the case of disasters, we will provide the number of patients, the nature of injuries as we know them at the time, gender and range of ages. Once the patients have arrived and are being treated in the emergency department, we will not have additional information to provide until they have been admitted and have agreed to the previously described disclosures.

Can you release patient information for minors?
It is state law that we not release information about patients under the age of 18 without written parental or guardian authorization.

What information will you give me without a name?
None. You won’t be able to call and check on the status of “the patient who was involved in an accident on 805 South,” for example.

Why can’t you give me information today if you gave it to me yesterday?
Patients have the right to restrict certain disclosures at any time they want. If they do, that means we can’t provide you any more updates.

Will you tell me if a patient has died?
If the patient is listed in the hospital directory and he/she subsequently has expired, we will provide that information. Otherwise, and for all other information including time and cause of death, you will need to call the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s office at 858-694-2895.

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Additional Resources

What are other sources for the information I need?
As previously stated, we cannot help you if you don’t have a name. Police and fire departments are sources for names. On some occasions, media have quoted patient condition information from police or firefighters, which has turned out to be incorrect. Please remember they are not health care professionals and may not have the most current information. Sometimes this information has been attributed to a hospital spokesperson in error. Please do not attribute this information to Sharp.

For other stories I’m working on, will I ever be able to talk to a patient?
For stories about new procedures, miraculous recoveries or other news, media relations staff will assist you by contacting patients and securing authorizations as long as it doesn’t interfere with our ability to provide patient care.

For More Information
If you have further questions about HIPAA and Sharp’s implementation, please contact the media relations office at 858-499-4117. Thank you for your understanding and patience regarding our implementation of HIPAA.

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