HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) was created in 1996 to protect patients’ personal health information (PHI) in addition to other things. One of its most frequently misunderstood sections involves the release of medical information. Although it specifically allows for treating physicians to access their patient’s health information in order to provide continuity of care without needing a patient to sign a release form, it is not unusual for this to be a problem. My office has had difficulty receiving necessary records from specialty offices and hospitals. Recently one of my patients was seen in a Kroger Little Clinic where she was treated for a urinary tract infection. Since her symptoms persisted, I needed the urinalysis from the clinic in order to determine future therapy. You’d of thought I was asking for gold from Fort Knox. In my long association with HIPAA I have found it mostly intoned by medical office individuals who have been poorly trained by the entities that employ them. Kroger has not appropriately educated their staff as to the ins and outs of a complicated law, thereby bringing about the following exchange on Twitter:
Ultimately I was able to get the UA results, begrudgingly, from an NP who I know called me a bad word as soon as she got off the phone. She was right. By the end of the day, I didn’t care what she thought of me. Just give me my patient’s damn data!
There are many articles on why physicians won’t use email to communicate with patients, such as the lack of remuneration, liability fears, HIPAA concerns and time constraints[1,2,3]. The fact is, physicians don’t read their email or respond to anyone. Seriously. Here’s a typical scenario: as physician champion for the EHR in our local system I hold once monthly sessions to trade tips & tricks and answer questions. Doctors rarely show up. Recently one of the physicians emailed me a recommendation that he thought would be of benefit to the providers (I was excited to get an email from him). “Why don’t you hold a monthly tip & trick session and everyone could share?” Wow. What a great idea. How come I never thought of that? After seething for a good five minutes I sent back an email and said “I’ve been offering this for almost a year now. Obviously I’m not communicating it well enough to the doctors since the email announcement several days before each session isn’t working. Do you have any suggestions on how to improve my communication?” The returned response was, “I guess I don’t read my emails very often.” You think? The same week my manager got an email from our PR department requesting her to tell me something. When I inquired as to why they didn’t send the email directly to me their response was “Because doctors never read their emails.” Fair enough. But I do. Yes, writing this rant in a blog is singing to the choir. If you read blogs I’ll bet you keep your email correspondence up-to-date, but seriously doctors: YOU HAVE TO READ YOUR EMAILS in this day and age. It is part of your job. To those of you who are tasked to communicate with physicians, even if they don’t read their emails, it is your job to send them. Don’t remove responsibility from the doctors’ shoulders by never sending the information to begin with. You can copy the manager but you still have to email the doctor. Our inboxes are crammed full of unimportant things so get the friendly IT guy to create filters for you. Fewer irrelevant things will be delivered to your inbox. Don’t feel the need to respond to every email. Most people don’t need to be thanked or even acknowledged, and they don’t want more extraneous emails in their inbox either. Establish a “throw away” email address on Google or elsewhere to give out when you buy something. Unsubscribe to sites that send you stuff. For more in-depth writing on the subject I recommend the Asian Efficiency website, especially this guide on emails. OK, back to my inbox. There is probably some mail I need to respond to. 1. Weill Cornell Medical College. The Doctor Will Email You Now 2. http://healthecommunications.wordpress.com/2011/07/19/lack-of-time-and-reimbursement-is-that-why-physicians-dont-do-a-better-job-communicating-with-patients/ 3. Wall Street Journal January 23, 2012 Should Physicians Use email to Communicate with their Patients? http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204124204577152860059245028.html
A text lights up my phone late in the evening. It’s from someone who is a patient but we’ve been together for so many years I consider her a friend. She has my phone number from other times she’s needed medical advice. She knows me well enough that she can assume I am adept at texting though we’ve never communicated that way before. The patient is immune deficient and somehow managed to scratch her leg. It didn’t originally look all that bad but in the last hour or two it has become red and swollen around the scratch and she is concerned about cellulitis.
There are no Immediate Care Centers open this late on a Sunday night. It is not clear to me from the description, even after speaking with her on the phone, if it is bad enough to need hospitalization. If not, the best care would be to start an antibiotic tonight and check it in the morning. My choices: send her to the ER at the height of flu season (a terrible idea for anyone but especially an immunocompromised individual), have her wait eight hours until morning and I can see the wound, treat it empirically, or have her send me a picture. The picture can’t be in a text because that’s not HIPAA compliant. It also can’t be email because that’s not HIPAA compliant. SKYPE? Maybe but I’m not sure how good the encryption is.
So I sit on my couch and weigh options–all the while thinking, “How did we get in such a quandary, where taking the best care of the patient is not first on my list of considerations? Where common sense is delegated to the back of the bus behind government regulations and insurance rules? And where the technology to make all this simple can’t be utilized to help my patient or me?” Patient portals are great but can she figure out how to load the picture on it? And our portal only accepts up to a 50 MB file. What if it’s larger? Will she know how to reduce the size? Yes, I could do what my 1950’s MD ancestor would do, which is hop in the car and make a house call, but he only saw 12 patients in the office the next day and made relatively leisurely rounds at the hospital. Not the frantic 20+ I’ll see tomorrow, needing all the rest I can get.