HIPAA and TV Shows

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA)

In a nutshell, for the Average Joe in the USA, HIPAA is what’s keeping your medical information private, in addition to the “portability” aspect of being able to change jobs and keep the same insurance. There are strict provisions on who your information can be released to, and how/when it is released.

Suffice it to say that if you called the local hospital information desk and asked how someone was doing, they can’t just say “Oh, Mary’s doing fine after her hysterectomy” without knowing that you somehow have a right to this information, primarily by either being Mary, or her parent.

So, the question is - on every medical reality TV show, there seems to be an obligatory shot of the “board” in the program, especially if the program is based on emergency medicine - the ER or ICU itself, or the paramedics / EMTs. On this board are patient names, their doctors and their symptoms / complaints. Is this legal?

Working for a company that handles the IT for three local hospitals I hear about HIPPA everyday… :frowning:

Those whiteboards are not in view of the general public, i.e. they’re not visible from a waiting room or lobby. They’d be at the nurse’s station or central core of an ER. You’d have to pass thru at least one level of security (of some kind) to see them. In theory of course.

Hospitals now also contain shred bins. Not actual shredders but locked, mailbox-like containers which are emptied periodically and sucked into big garbage truck-like shredding vehicles.

Still, it’s never quite the CIA.

I work in a Residential Treatment Center for adolescents and we used to have a big white board posted on the office wall of the unit where it could be seen by anyone on the unit. The board had the resident’s name, placing agency, admission date, etc. After HIPAA, we just had to make the board smaller and put it lower on another wall so that you had to actually be in the office to see it. After a while we decided just to keep the info in a binder sitting on a desk. I am guessing that the hospital’s HIPAA person would think of some way of having the info available to their employees without it being displayed for everyone to see.

I could tell you other things we had to change due to HIPAA (some of them somewhat silly and odd), but it would take me an hour.

It’s also possible that fictitious names are used on the board on TV as an additional level of privacy. The information may be valid, but as long as there are no patient identifiers, it’s OK.


OK, so HIPAA is as stringent in this regard as I thought it was.

Sounds like the shows are either:

A: Made pre-HIPAA and showing real patient info
B: Showing a fake board
C: Current, showing real patient info and someone’s about to be in deep doo-doo.
I’m assuming it would be the hospital since they have the obligation to protect the information in the first place.

What got me to wondering on this subject was seeing something like “Trauma: Life in the ER” last week and by adding up all the pieces - show’s shot at “Big City Memorial Hospital” and seeing a shot of the board listing patient C. Walters in treatment room 3 for abdominal pains, being seen by Dr. Adams, etc. - you can know a lot more about Mr. Walters than would normally be possible.

Maybe I can answer this – I work in an ER. Our “white board” has the patient’s last name only, with their nurse’s name written next to it. No first names, no mention of what their complaint is. (Sometimes, if we have two patients with the same last name, we’ll write in a first initial in order to differentiate --i.e. “Jones, A.” and Jones, B.") We do not give out patient info to visitors, and never over the phone. I’ve gotten cussed out on more than one occasion because I wouldn’t tell someone everything there was to know about dear old Dad’s condition. HIPPA is taken VERY seriously by hospital staff; my guess would be that the patients shown on reality medical shows have signed a waiver. Those who don’t sign are probably listed with fictitious names.

Well, on Smallville, patient information is readily available over the internet (“Hey! Lex is scheduled to get shock treatments starting at 2:30!”). So are police records. You’re saying that’s a little unlikely? :dubious: