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Technology and Patient Privacy

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Advances in technology have brought new meaning to the issue of patient privacy during and after EMS responses. The advent of cell phone cameras, text messaging and Internet access from EMS stations has opened up areas involving patient privacy that have not previously been explored.

A Portland, Ore., rape victim recently sued a local ambulance paramedic who posted the details of her attack on a Web page called MySpace.com, contending that the paramedic invaded her privacy by posting the approximate location of the sexual assault and her comments regarding her attacker. The Multnomah County lawsuit named the paramedic s employer, American Medical Response, as well as the paramedic, Simon Green, and alleged that the posting alerted the media, who then pursued the victim, and further may have impeded the criminal investigation by releasing confidential details about the case to the public. The victim seeks economic damages for lost time at work, having to move, as well as emotional distress damages.

In Adair County, Ky., an EMT was suspended and later terminated after posting Internet photographs of a bloody crash involving a young ATV driver and a school bus.

In Clinton, Ky., paramedic John Snow has apologized to Hickman County residents for posting photographs of some of his EMS scenes on a Web site. The photos included car accidents, shootings and a photo of a coworker who had lost a finger in an accident involving an engine. The Web site offered details of some of the local EMS calls, and even though Snow didn t use any names, the rural nature of the area led many citizens to be able to identify victims. The Clinton-Hickman County Ambulance service investigated to find out if the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) had been violated, ultimately concluding that it had not after supervisors spent almost a week on the phone with HIPAA and state officials. The investigation came after a complaint involving one of Snow s postings in which he detailed transporting a nurse who had a heart attack. Snow was told to take down the site.

A medical malpractice trial against a physician ended in a quick settlement when the plaintiff s attorney cross examined the doctor on the stand. The doctor admitted that, under a pen name, he had been posting the details of the trial daily on an Internet blog site, making derogatory comments about the plaintiff and his lawyer, and mocking the entire judicial procedure.

Obviously, there s something about patient privacy that isn t well understood by EMS personnel. Although there can clearly be value in appropriate use of scene photographs for documentation of injuries, and for training and quality assurance purposes, EMTs should not be without guidance in these areas. The function of EMS personnel is not to provide information to the media, or to post or advertise information or photographs about patients. Consult your service administration before engaging in any Web site postings that in any way disclose information you would not have outside of your EMS position.

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