Julianna Paradisi, RN, OCN, writes a monthly post for this blog and works as an infusion nurse in outpatient oncology.
Does anyone else find it ironic that, while the National Security Agency (NSA) is seeking to extradite and prosecute the contractor who revealed the agency’s alleged widespread spying on ordinary Americans and visitors from other countries, nurses can get fired for far more local breaches of privacy?
When the government gives 500,000 private contractors access to data hoards compiled from the electronic and phone conversations of U.S. citizens, is HIPAA still relevant?
Two years ago, the nurse blogosphere raged over the expulsion of three nursing students for posting the photo of a placenta on Facebook. Today, in light of the NSA’s potentially far-reaching privacy violations, the decidedly insensitive exploits of those students seem a bit less newsworthy.
More famously, the ordeal of Vickilyn Galle and Anne Mitchell, nurses who were fired after they blew the whistle on medical malpractice while exposing a conflict of interest affecting patient safety within the hospital, illustrates the high accountability placed upon nurses to protect patient privacy.
Aside from the obvious ethical concerns, hospitals have another good reason for their vigilance over patient privacy infractions. The federal government has the right to fine health care organizations up to $50,000 per violation, to a limit of $1,500,00 per year. In response, many hospitals have rapidly created social media policies as an extra layer of protection. Reportedly, some of these policies are quite strict.
It’s true that, in hospitals and governmental affairs, the boundaries between privacy and safety can sometimes seem pretty unclear. For instance, it’s nobody’s business if your four-year-old is allergic to peanuts, so allergies are no longer written in Sharpie on a piece of paper fastened to the door of his hospital room. His privacy is maintained. However, when he rings his call bell during change of shift report and asks the volunteer who answers it to bring him a snack, and she does without interrupting the nurses, but the snack contains peanuts, his safety is jeopardized.
Hospitals are under the oversight of HIPAA to ensure the private information they collect is used to benefit patients without violation of their privacy.
When the National Security Agency listens in and collects data on the private phone calls of individuals, the benefits are debatable. How is this data used and protected? Oversight is necessary. But for now, the NSA oversees itself. Oregon senator Ron Wyden leads a growing group of senators demanding increased accountability and oversight of the NSA.
Partially in jest, I suggest that the NSA give this job of oversight to nurses. Think about it. First, for the past 11 years, nurses have been seen as the most trusted professionals in America. Second, as mentioned above, nurses have practiced walking the ethical line between privacy and safety for years. If a photograph of an unidentified placenta can’t get by us, nothing will.