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ADVANCE Perspective: Nurses

HIPAA be damned? Celebrity death fuels debate about privacy rules in healthcare

Published July 13, 2009 5:49 PM by Lyn A.E. McCafferty

If you think the fictional Nurse Jackie and HawthoRNe are bad for nursing’s image, just wait until you hear about one real-life nurse in California.

Like many, I could not escape the media frenzy following Michael Jackson’s death. Internet, TV, newspapers, magazines and even my iPhone was giving me minute details of the singer’s final days, his legacy, how he’ll be missed, his memorial service, and on and on.

But comments from Cherilyn Lee, NP, RN, gave me pause. How much is too much information? And who should be giving out that information?

Man in the Mirror

As you may know, Jackson suffered from insomnia. According to Lee, who spoke to reporters from CNN, asked her for Diprivan, a powerful sedative, in January 2009 when she was treating his three children for cold and flu symptoms.

She discouraged him from taking the specific medication, known by its generic name propofol, by telling him it is generally administered intravenously as an anesthetic during surgery. She also described some of the potentially harmful side effects of the drug — including cardiac arrest.

“I told him — and it is so painful that I actually felt it in my whole spirit — ‘If you take this you might not wake up,’” Lee told CNN.

According to her account, Lee did not prescribe the medication to Jackson, nor does she know if any physician did. But a few days before his death, she said she received a call from one of Jackson’s people asking her to visit him again.

She was out of town and could not stop by, but asked for a description of his symptoms: one half of his body was hot, the other half was cold. Suspecting a neurological or cardiovascular issue, she said she urged his people to get him to the hospital.

When she called back to check up on him, she could not reach anyone, she said.

On June 25, Jackson died. He was 50 years old. Toxicology reports, which should help determine what killed him, are expected later this month.

Private Property

While part of me was intrigued to learn these details about a celebrity I whose songs I sang along to as a teenager, I couldn’t help wonder if this nurse had ever heard about HIPAA.

In the 14-minute interview with CNN, she described not only her assessment of Jackson but also her assessment and treatment of his three children.

While Jackson may qualify as a public figure — a judgment courts often use to determine privacy rights for media outlets — his children were minors and did not put themselves willingly into the limelight.

Privacy standards for journalists and healthcare personnel are different for a reason. And that’s where HIPAA comes in.

Nurses like Lee are bound to protect their patients’ privacy about medical issues — in all settings.

There’s no HIPAA exception for celebrities or death.

Fact or Fiction?

Unfortunately for the nursing profession, Lee isn’t like Nurse Jackie or Christina Hawthorne. She’s not a pill-popper or a CNO with time to burn for patient care. We can’t simply ignore her by turning off the TV.

Lee holds active licenses as both an NP and RN in California that won’t expire until March 31, 2010.

Until then, she can cause more harm, violate more patients’ rights and make many people in this country wonder what their nurse will disclose about them.

To me, that’s a lot more dangerous to the profession than fictional characters on TV.


I thought the same thing when I first heard her interview... patient confidentiality is so important. She is wrong and should be more responsible.

Kerri July 13, 2009 8:05 PM

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