by Michael J. Sacopulos, Esq.

A recent case from Missouri highlights the importance of keeping patient’s medical information confidential — even from that patient’s family members. A 23 year old female sustained injuries to her right arm. While being treated for these injuries, a patient alleges that a nurse informed the patient’s brother and aunt of her being HIV-positive. The patient went on to state that the same nurse announced her HIV status in a hospital corridor while transporting her from the surgical recovery room to her hospital room.

The case ultimately went to trial. The jury returned a decision in favor of the defendants. The patient then appealed to the Missouri Court of Appeals. The appeal centered around the exclusion of a different nurse’s testimony. The excluded testimony would have stated that the excluded nurse had witnessed other nurses at Heartland Regional Medical Center openly discussing confidential patient information. For procedural rules, the Missouri Court of Appeals found that the plaintiffs’ argument had not been properly preserved for the appeal. Thus, the plaintiffs/patient’s appeal was denied.

Although this case ultimately was decided in favor of the healthcare providers, it serves as a warning to keep patient information confidential. While there may be a general assumption that a patient’s family members visiting the patient in a hospital setting already know (or should be entitled to know) some of the patient’s confidential medical information, this assumption is false. Just because a patient’s sibling is bedside, a health care provider does not have permission to discuss the patient’s confidential information with anyone other than the patient.

The safest course of action is to have the patient approve of the information provided to friends and family. In situations where the patient has not expressly signed a Durable Power of Healthcare Attorney or signed documents permitting the disclosure of healthcare information, a healthcare provider can simply ask that patient if consent is given to share information with the friends and relatives present. If oral consent is given, this should be noted in the patient’s chart. A little preparation and discretion will go a long way in avoiding a patient claim for breach of privacy.

Michael Sacopulos is General Counsel of Medical Justice and a partner in Sacopulos Johnson & Sacopulos, Attorneys at Law