Media Relations and HIPAA

As I stated in the introduction of this new blog, I will be inviting brilliant voices to discuss current communications hot topics. I am happy to welcome my first guest blogger, Sherry Carr-Smith.

One of the major functions of my work in the communications department of a large health system is media relations. Although I’ve always worked in non-profit public relations, I had never worked in healthcare before my current job. I’ve been in this position for three years, and I love it, but it was a big adjustment for me.

We have fantastic stories to tell: new procedures that let patients stay close to home for care, physicians with specialties that are desperately needed in our area moving to town, new treatments that are literally lifesaving. And don’t forget the always fun First-Baby-Born-in-the-New-Year story! There are, however, a lot of stories that can be difficult to tell.

We are a faith-based health system, and we are very protective of our patients. Even if we weren’t protective, we are also bound by HIPAA to protect our patients. HIPAA is the “Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996.” This rule offers protection of individually identifiable health information. The rule is written so that it permits the disclosure of personal health information needed for patient care and other important purposes.

Much to the frustration of many journalists, and to those of us in the healthcare field, “other important purposes” doesn’t cover giving out information on patients. Every patient has an expectation of privacy and, if they choose the option, we are often unable to even confirm that a person is a patient in our hospital.

Because HIPAA can be so restricting in the information I can provide a reporter (even on fun stories), I find it even more important to have a good relationship with my media colleagues. They have to understand – to really know – that I will tell them everything that is within my power to share. They have to know that when I don’t have information on a person that they *know* is in one of our hospitals it’s because that person has asked for privacy and not because I’m not being forthcoming.

The flip side of working with HIPAA is that if a health system is accused of misconduct by a patient or former patient, and permission is not given by the patient to discuss the case, the health system is unable to answer the accusations. The patient has all the freedom to discuss the situation while the health system can only talk in very general terms.

As a potential patient, I am very appreciative of HIPAA and the policies many hospitals have in place to protect the privacy of their patients. I don’t want anyone in my medical business! As a media relations person, it can be a frustrating policy; but, it has forced me to work on my relationship-building skills with journalists. Luckily, most of the moms of the New Year babies are happy to sign the consent form to have their photos taken and to do interviews on their happy day.

What challenges have you faced when working with the media & a delicate situation? Thoughts?

Sherry Carr-Smith is a public relations counselor for a large heath system in Texas. She has been working in non-profit public relations for 13 years. You can connect with Sherry on Twitter @prCarrS.

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