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Working Around HIPAA

By Nate Hegyi

Hospitals may view their primary role as helping those injured or sick, but regulations aimed at protecting patient privacy also create significant challenges for reporters when important news occurs inside a health care facility.

Passed by Congress in 1996, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) makes confidential the vast majority of patient information. While it allows for the release of patient names and general conditions, some health care officials use it as a shield to deny access that media should have, says the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a nonprofit organization that provides legal assistance to journalists.

Michael Albans, a former staff photographer for the New York Daily News and adjunct professor at the University of Montana, has some tips on how to work with (or around) hospital bureaucracy.

1) Talk to the patient: Albans suggests reaching out to the patient or their family directly before speaking with a hospital – it works 80 or 90 percent of the time, he said. Officials will have a hard time stopping you if a patient invites you as a guest.

2) Be inconspicuous: Don’t wear your cameras around your neck or your press badge in plain sight, Albans recommends. It solicits attention and screams “journalist.”

3) Talking to hospitals: For larger features on hospitals and their staff, it helps to pitch the story in a positive light – it opens doors that would otherwise remain closed.

4) Sneaking in as a visitor: It toes an ethical and legal line, Albans says, but some photographers and journalists do it. Knock on the door of a patient’s room and always ask for permission before photographing or interviewing them.

Nate Hegyi is a graduate student at the University of Montana’s School of Journalism.