Better Health: Smart Health Commentary Better Health (TM): smart health commentary

Article Comments

Advancing Medical Progress With Case Studies While Maintaining HIPAA Compliance

It was an interesting tweet that referenced a soon-to-be-published case report from the Annals of Emergency Medicine (via @EmergencyDocs) that piqued my interest:

Thrilling case study: emergency doc cracked chest to save 42 y/o woman in cardiac tamponade after ablation therapy. http://bit.ly/umnydc

Details about the case are quite specific and the case report heralds from a town in Minnesota. It describes, in very specific detail, the management of a patient who presented to the emergency room in shock from cardiac tamponade after a catheter ablation procedure for right ventricular outflow tract tachycardia.

Is this unique case report HIPAA compliant?

I would say, according to our current definition of HIPAA’s “personal health information,” such a case report is not HIPAA compliant. Nor could such a case be mentioned on a blog, for that matter, even though it presents important information for people dealing with these patients.

There is an important quality-of-care role in telling these clinical stories. In fact, HIPAA states there are just “18 little rules” that doctors are supposed to follow when they report important clinical cases. But details about cases may need to be very specific. Specific case reports can bring important specific clinical details to the attention of the medical community. For instance, if doctors had not been willing to describe several cases of pulmonary vein stenosis or two cases of esophageal perforation in a major medical journal years ago, how many more people might have been injured as a result?

But there’s problem giving such details about clinical details about patient cases: “the small cell problem:”

Clinicians should be sensitive to the “small cell problem”: the existence of individuals with such unique or unusual diagnoses or illnesses, that it might be possible for others (or patients and families themselves) to identify the individuals in case reports or medical text books based upon limited information, such as state or city of residence, age and diagnosis.

The “small cell” problem violates HIPAA and HIPAA means business: millions of dollars of business that gets released in press releases from the Department of Health and Human Services when they catch their prey.

But doctors should not be afraid of publishing case reports especially since there are good reasons for them clinically. Further, when doctors make good faith efforts to conceal patient’s personal information in those reports, they should not be subject to threats of HIPAA’s “small cell” problem. Simply put: the “small cell” problem is HIPAA’s, not the doctors’. Extending the definition of personal health information as defined by HIPAA to include “any other unique identifying characteristic” about a patient’s case limits doctors’ ability to improve care to our patients while greatly increasing our legal culpability for that effort.

*This blog post was originally published at Dr. Wes*


You may also like these posts

Read comments »


Comments are closed.

Return to article »

Latest Interviews

IDEA Labs: Medical Students Take The Lead In Healthcare Innovation

It’s no secret that doctors are disappointed with the way that the U.S. healthcare system is evolving. Most feel helpless about improving their work conditions or solving technical problems in patient care. Fortunately one young medical student was undeterred by the mountain of disappointment carried by his senior clinician mentors…

Read more »

How To Be A Successful Patient: Young Doctors Offer Some Advice

I am proud to be a part of the American Resident Project an initiative that promotes the writing of medical students residents and new physicians as they explore ideas for transforming American health care delivery. I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the writing fellows about how to…

Read more »

See all interviews »

Latest Cartoon

See all cartoons »

Latest Book Reviews

Book Review: Is Empathy Learned By Faking It Till It’s Real?

I m often asked to do book reviews on my blog and I rarely agree to them. This is because it takes me a long time to read a book and then if I don t enjoy it I figure the author would rather me remain silent than publish my…

Read more »

The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

Read more »

Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a…

Read more »

See all book reviews »