Local News

Law Enforcement, Hospital Work To Find Common Ground On Patient Privacy

Posted January 23, 2004

— At an accident scene, police and medical personnel work side by side. Once they get to the hospital, everything changes because of a federal law.

HIPAA

is a federal privacy law that prevents hospitals from revealing patient information -- even to investigators.

"HIPAA kind of surprised everybody. All of a sudden we got up one morning in April and it was there," said Lt. Col. John Maxfield of the Wake County Sheriff's Office.

Wake County law enforcement agencies met with administrators at WakeMed Wednesday to try and figure out how they can balance their needs.

"HIPAA could be a roadblock if the medical personnel and the law enforcement aren't equally sure what the parameters of are," Maxfield said.

"Our goal clearly is to cooperate in any way we can under the letter of the law to help law enforcement do their job," said WakeMed communications director Debbie Laughery.

Under North Carolina law, hospitals must report child abuse and serious or suspicious injuries like gunshot wounds. Once investigators arrive in the ER, they run into HIPAA.

"The patient comes first. So if they say, 'I want to keep my information private,' we have to keep it private. So they do conflict," Laughery said.

"HIPAA doesn't say that hospitals can't give us information we need, it says they're not required to. They may, but they're not required to," Maxfield said.

Investigators who attended Wednesday's meeting said they are making progress. They said WakeMed's new CEO, Dr. William Atkinson, is working to help them all find some middle ground on HIPAA.

Investigators can file for a search warrant or get a subpoena to go after what they need, but getting those take time and that time could jeopardize key information.

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