Hallways, HIPAA, and the Herds

During one of many hospitalizations, I lay in my bed, running a fever and too distracted to concentrate on my school work or anything else. In the doorway to my room, one woman and several men milled about in their white coats. An older man nodded his distinguished gray-haired head to signal to a particular student.

Clearing his throat, the young man began. “The osteosarcoma in 12B was diagnosed via surgical biopsy in February 1989,” he said, and I realized he was speaking of me. “Right distal femur, stage 2b, limb-salvaging surgery May ‘89. Patient has undergone 12 rounds of chemo—uh, methotrexate, Adriamycin, and cisplatin. Readmitted with neutropenic fever. Current treatment is hydration, wide spectrum antibiotics, and acetaminophen.”

I was too weary to object to the reduction of myself to a diagnosis and occupancy of bed 12B, but it rankled. The attending continued to question the student reporting on my case, allowing anyone who was in a nearby room or wandering down the hallway to hear intimate details of my medical history. When the attending was satisfied, he led the way into my room, where he asked me a couple of perfunctory questions before continuing down the hall to his next patient.

Back in the old days, before the passage of HIPAA legislation in 1996 and the implementation of the “protected health information” privacy requirements in 2003, I used to lie in my hospital bed and listen to medical students summarize my case (and those of my roommate and other patients) to members of what my nurses referred to as the “herd”—the cluster of medical students, interns, and residents who roamed the hallways of teaching hospitals on the heels of attending physicians.

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This time-tested case study approach to teaching medicine has much to recommend it, having helped generations of medical students grasp the complexities of differential diagnosis and treatment. The gross violation of patients’ privacy was strictly incidental, of course, an unintended consequence of a proven teaching method. At the time, it upset me far more that I regularly learned things about myself from eavesdropping on my case report than it did that everyone in the vicinity also overheard the herd. Why wasn’t all of that information shared with me directly?

Its teaching effectiveness notwithstanding, the hallway case study method had a dehumanizing effect; it sent a clear signal that patient privacy would be sacrificed to the convenience (and power and privilege) of the herd. That is, the education of doctors became the most valued goal of the ward, rather than the care of patients. We were cases for them to learn from, stripped of names but with many of our most intimate bodily details shared openly—not primarily for our needs but for the student doctors’ benefit.

Many years later, I have more language and concepts available to me to explain why hallway reporting was inappropriate. Of course, this was also back in the day when patients were not allowed to touch the paper medical records that hung on the end of our beds, and it never occurred to me (preacher’s kid and good girl at the time) to peek. Now I wish I had been a wild, outlaw, peeking patient! I’m incensed that I was explicitly forbidden to touch the sacred record of my own illness experiences.

Ironically, I have shared far more intimate details of my life, body, illnesses, and relationships in this blog and in some of the journal articles and academic books I have published than were ever included in the hallway case reports. But that is my choice, not theirs.

I am not angry at the herds who did their best to care for me in the pre-HIPAA landscape. Society’s understanding of privacy has evolved over time, along with our expectations for the practice of medicine. I’m pleased that the case study process now continues with the HIPAA requirement that reporting happens in a conference room or other (mostly) private space prior to the herds rambling down the hospital hallways. I am thrilled that healthcare organizations cannot give out my medical information without my written consent and that, conversely, they must provide me with copies of my records at my request.

HIPAA isn’t perfect, but it did promise patients that the power to decide when and how to share our stories in public venues (including hospital hallways) would now rest with patients rather than with wandering herds. Yeehaw!

 

 

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