Patient privacy policies now more stringent

February 18, 2003 11:00 pm

By CLAIRE ST. JOHN and The Associated Press

Hospitals must now follow new federal health privacy rules regarding the release of patient information.

The rule at many hospitals was that any relative of a patient or member of the media could call a hospital and provide the patient's name to get a general update on the patient's condition — critical, stable, fair or good.

Now, after years of discussion, the federal rules represent the first comprehensive protections for health privacy.

The rules prohibit disclosure — without patient permission — of information for reasons unrelated to health care. And there will be new civil and criminal penalties for violators.

Nancy L. Drews, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountabilities Act coordinator at Sonora Community Hospital — who is helping implement the new regulations — said a many hospitals already had anonymity policies that will now be reinforced by the federal law.

Hospitals across the country are revising a spectrum of policies, including those governing the release of basic information about a patient's condition to anyone who asks for it.

Hospitals must implement the new rules by April 14.

Larry Cornish, spokesman for Mark Twain St. Joseph's Hospital in San Andreas, said the new polices are difficult and costly to implement, but patients, family members and the media won't see much difference.

"(The new policies) don't change the way we discuss patients with the media," Cornish said. "We've always offered patient confidentiality and we don't release information without family consent."

Congress directed the Department of Health and Human Services to write the massive privacy regulation — which affects every hospital, doctor's office, insurance company and pharmacy in the country — after lawmakers were unable to resolve differences over the issue.

Under the new rules, hospitals must inform patients if they normally report patients' conditions, and give patients the chance to opt out.