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emPower eLearning: Hospital incident deserves investigation, disclosure

Monday, February 27, 2012

Hospital incident deserves investigation, disclosure

It’s called the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Most who have a passing familiarity with it simply use the acronym, HIPAA Training.

And like anything created by government, it has multiple sides, angles and provisions. It also comes with reams of confounding, jargon-filled paperwork.

People from all walks of life encounter it every day for a variety of reasons but many are unaware of precisely what it is or does. The most common instances, though, involve privacy for patients of doctors, in hospitals or myriad medical facilities.

Citing a government website, the HIPAA Privacy Rule “provides federal protections for personal health information held by covered entities and gives patients an array of rights with respect to that information. At the same time, the Privacy Rule is balanced so that it permits the disclosure of personal health information needed for patient care and other important purposes. The Security Rule specifies a series of administrative, physical, and technical safeguards for covered entities to use to assure the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of electronic protected health information.”

That’s a long way of saying that HIPAA keeps information about patients from being released to people or entities patients don’t wish to receive it. The regulation was created as a way to protect the privacy of the public on a case-by-case basis. As a result, it changed the way hospitals and other organizations release conditions of injured patients for example. It also altered the way newspapers or other media outlets — and even police or other investigating agencies — do their jobs.

All of this is prelude to a larger point concerning a troubling incident that allegedly occurred last week at Alamance Regional Medical Center. According to Burlington police and hospital officials, a Greensboro man was taken into custody on an allegation that he raped a woman while both were patients at the hospital. Such events are exceedingly rare. Police and those with ARMC could not think of another similar case at the hospital.

At the moment, largely because of HIPAA privacy regulations, there are more questions than answers about an alleged crime that potentially occurred at a place most would logically consider and reasonably expect to be a secure environment. How and why really only constitute a beginning.

The matter first came to public attention Monday night after Dennis Patrick Cronin, 29, was arrested earlier in the day on a warrant charging him with second-degree rape. Authorities say the alleged rape occurred in the 27-year-old woman’s room Thursday. She reported it to hospital personnel on Friday after Cronin was discharged.

Citing HIPAA regulations, neither police nor hospital representatives can say why either patient required hospitalization or what unit their rooms were in. Hospital spokeswoman Tracey Grayzer could only say that patients receive frequent visits by staff members and that nurses are available by call buttons in individual rooms.

“Under federal law, we are obligated to protect patient privacy — both the privacy of the patient and the suspect — and are unable to comment further,” Grayzer said.

For the moment that leaves people in the community with only sketchy information about an incident of concern. Patients in hospitals are often incapacitated and in a vulnerable position. Where and how the alleged attack occurred leads to questions about whether security measures at ARMC are tight enough or what could or should have been done to prevent this or future incidents?

Officials at ARMC are cooperating with the police investigation and we applaud them for doing so. It’s also our hope that an outside agency will look into how things were handled in this particular case and issue a report that will be available to the public.

HIPAA was enacted to protect the privacy of individuals, not shield the public at-large from important information it has a right to know.

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