SIKESTON -- Missouri Delta Medical Center officials have found a way to both comply with HIPAA's privacy regulations and allow for more detailed information to be released to patients' loved ones.
Since 2003, privacy rules that were included in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 have put tight limits on the type of information hospitals and other healthcare providers are able to provide leaving many family members and friends in the dark about their loved one's condition.
"Basically, you can say they're in stable condition or they're doing fine, things like that. But a lot of family and friends want to know more," said Sharon Urhahn, director of marketing for MDMC. "Now when a patient is admitted to the hospital, they pick a pass code -- a word or number, whatever they can remember. It is then the patient's responsibility to distribute and protect that pass code."
The system was first implemented by using a randomly-assigned number but was soon changed to make it easier for patients to recall their pass code.
"We found patients were having trouble remembering a random four-digit number rather than something they come up with themselves," Urhahn said.
Patients now pick their own pass code which must have at least four digits or letters.
Those who receive this pass code from the patient are then authorized to receive that patient's detailed personal health information.
"When they call the nurses station and they want to know an update, before the nurse gives them any information other than general condition, they will ask for the pass code," Urhahn said. "If they want more information than just the general condition of the patient, they have to have this pass code."
Linda Frohawk of Sikeston, who is currently an inpatient at MDMC, said she and her family and friends are pleased with the pass code system.
"This is my first time to use it. I think it's worked out fine," Frohawk said. "I gave them the code I was using so they could call if I wasn't able to speak to them they could talk to somebody else. Everybody I told said, "That's a really good idea.'"
"If a patient is incapable of selecting a code, the nearest relative, guardian, or Power of Attorney, should be contacted to obtain the pass code," said Janet Vines, director of admissions at MDMC.
"This pass code is only valid during that visit and expires when you are discharged," Urhahn noted, as some patients may wish to divulge information on some stays but not on others or have different people authorized for different procedures or hospital stays.
Urhahn said the pediatrics and obstetrics units have been using a pass code system for a quite some time due to security concerns for young patients but the system was only recently put into place for all admitted patients.
"This is now hospital wide," she said. "We've been doing it for about two weeks now."
With privacy of patient information being second in importance only to patient care itself, "we're trying to keep their privacy, but also make it not as frustrating for family and friends," Urhahn said.