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HIM Education: Prepare for Healthcare’s Future

Personal Health Information & Ebola

Published November 5, 2014 1:02 PM by HIM Professionals
Recently, Fox Rothschild LLP published a blog questioning the continuous stream of information shared about Ebola patients Thomas Eric Duncan and his former nurse Nina Pham. The blog author brings up a great point: amid all of the Ebola chatter, has anyone stopped to think, "How are we getting all of this personal health information?"

It sounds like most of the information on Duncan has been shared by his family members, a nephew and his mother, according to the blog. While his family isn't restricted by HIPAA as covered entities and business associates are, the vast amount of detailed medical care, "hundreds of pages of medical records," shared in an Associated Press article has some questioning whether or not the family should even have access to all of this information. Citing HIPAA Regulation section 164.502(g)(4), the blog explains that Duncan's family should only have access to his medical records if an "executor, administrator, or other person has authority to act on behalf of a deceased individual." Perhaps the executer obtained the reams of medical records legally and shared it with other members of the family, but it does lead healthcare providers to wonder.

Pham's eventual discovery is a bit more suspect, according to the blog, as media reporters and researchers deduced her identity after cross-referencing her known address with public records and nursing databases. The blog goes on to postulate: "if the sources were hospital personnel who revealed sufficient information about these patients to allow their identification when cross-referenced with public sources, they likely  crossed the line even if they did not reveal patient names, particularly if the leakers had knowledge that the information could be combined with other information to identify the individual."

Of course, the CDC's and other covered entities' need to disclose PHI in order to notify those at risk of contracting or spreading Ebola might account for the continued spread of information via family and friends. But that PHI continues to find its way into media reports, which should be raising some eyebrows.

Identifying and treating patients with communicable diseases is no doubt an extremely difficult task ... but as the blog concludes, "the rules don't change because of controversial, highly dangerous diseases." Some of this PHI may have been shared without any HIPAA violation; yet some of it might have.

While your facility prepares for Ebola with safety and protocol training, are you thinking about PHI too?     

8 comments

I think it is extremely important to keep PHI confidential, even if the discussion is between non-healthcare professionals. If the patient wanted to discuss their information with the world, then they would do it. There comes a point where we must draw the line when it comes to someone's personal information. You have to put yourself in their shoes, and ask yourself, "If I were in this situation, would I want my family sharing this information?".

Ashley Burk January 19, 2016 10:01 PM

My name is Danielle Clark and I'm a student at Davenport university in Michigan. I've been reading these blogs and thinking how it can help me on some of my research papers. Do you have any advice for a student who is trying to get in the HIM field?

Danielle Clark September 24, 2015 2:21 PM
lansing MI

How much of one's PHI should be shared publicly? Ebola became a public threat to the nation and thus everyone should be aware of this "oncoming" epidemic, and the necessary precautions to take.  Unlike AIDS (at the time of writing this blog) which cannot be transmitted through casual contact with the infected person, Duncan and Pham contracted the disease through casual contact with either patients or relatives/friends. The disclosure of Duncan's and Pham's PHI is another issue since it may be discovered that there may have been some violation of their privacy.  One will argue that the disclosure was necessary, because it was a public, current and accurate issue at the time.

Sophia September 24, 2015 5:40 AM
Grand Rapids MI

It looks as if the disclosure of private information was shared by everyone but the patient. It is not abnormal for the community to be concerned with diseases and the possible spread of them. It is important however, not to forget basic privacy in the midst of chaos and uproar.

Natasha September 21, 2015 10:11 AM
Warren MI

This is a very interesting article and still relevant even though the initial Ebola scare is pretty much finished.  When there is an outbreak such as what happened, how much PHI should be released to the media and whose responsibility is it?  I know that if it were me, I would not want the media to know who I was or any of my identifying  information.  How are we going to protect the patients in the future?

Heather Briggs, HIM - Student, Davenport University September 8, 2015 12:43 PM
Kalamazoo MI

Hello! I work as an Administrative Medical Support in a hospital and a HIT student. I believe that patient's information shd. always be protected no matter what the case is. It does not matter how dangerous or infectious the disease the patient has. As the facilities prepare for Ebola with safety and protocol training, PHI should not be disregarded. Family members and hospital staffs should be reminded the importance of PHI.

This is a very interesting article. Thank you.

RICA SHEPARD, Med. Adinistrative Support May 24, 2015 9:26 PM
West Palm Beach FL

My name is Jackie Heald and I am an HIM student at Palm Beach State College in Lake Worth, Florida. These blogs are so interesting to read because they prepare me for the challenges I will be facing when working in the HIM field.

jackie heald January 14, 2015 4:32 PM
palm springs FL

Hello Team,

Am a healthcare executive working at MModal Global services p. Ltd, Hyderabad, India

Our head office located at Raleigh, North Carolina

ramesh narne, MedicalTranscription - Exe, MModal November 12, 2014 11:27 AM
Raleigh NC

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