Important Note

— Patient Privacy —

When you visit a doctor, dentist, hospital, lab, or other health care provider, you are often asked to sign a form stating that you have received the provider's Privacy Statement. The form will also usually include an Authorization section that gives the provider permission to share your medical information with other health care providers.

Patient privacy has become very important in our society, but its rules can be very frustrating. For example, if your loved one has a medical emergency, you usually won't be able to get any information about him or her, even if your loved one is your spouse. When you ask, "Why not?," you'll hear that you can't be told because of HIPAA. That's the federal law that governs patient privacy. In our opinion, HIPAA's patient protection rules are a good example of the best of intentions gone bad.

HIPAA works very well when it prevents unauthorized people from learning about your private medical information. For example, a drug company cannot get information about any illness you have so they can try to sell you their latest "miracle" cure. And, telemarketers can't get your personal medical information so they can sell you an herbal concoction that's guaranteed to cure everything from warts to hair loss to flat feet -- and more.

Where HIPAA doesn't work is that your spouse and other members of your family are automatically excluded from your list of authorized people. Very few Privacy Authorization forms have a space where you can indicate which family members do have your permission to share your medical information. In each case, you need to ask how you can give permission to share your information with the people of your choice.

As just one example of the difficulties caused by HIPAA, we know a doctor in Florida whose husband was hospitalized in California. The hospital would not tell her anything by phone even though he was temporarily unconscious and could not give the hospital permission to talk to his wife.

While a few health care professionals may sometimes bend the rules slightly for family members with the same last name as their patient, you can't count on it. Married daughters with different last names can face an impossible hurdle.

Is there a solution? YES! In fact, there are two.

First, don't wait until you are faced with a medical emergency. Every time you and your loved visit a doctor, hospital, medical lab, etc., ask them for whatever form your loved one has to sign for them to talk with you about his or her medical affairs. Important note: Each form your loved one signs applies only to that particular health care provider; if your loved one has several health care providers, he or she will need to sign a permission form for each one of them. And, if you have brothers or sisters, be sure to include their names on each permission form your loved one signs.

Second, if your loved one has any of these documents,

— Durable power of attorney for health care
— Living will
— Trust(s)

and he or she is still mentally competent, each document should be reviewed at the earliest possible date by an attorney who specializes in elder law to be certain that the necessary HIPAA language has been included. If it isn't there when it becomes necessary to utilize the document, doctors and lawyers won't be able to communicate with each other, and it is very likely that your loved one's instructions in those documents will not be followed.

Speak with an attorney who specializes in elder law. Check the yellow pages in your local telephone directory, or go to the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys' website. On their home page for the public, you will find a link in the upper left corner (just below their logo) that will help you locate an elder law attorney.