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Posted on 09.26.2016

Healthcare Communicators, Now Hear this HIPAA!

Lovell media experts recently discussed the latest guidance from the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) regarding HIPAA, the privacy regs of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Enforcement actions from HHS this year relate to the mere presence of media in patient care areas without written authorization from each individual in that area.  Yes, that’s each individual.

A New York area hospital reached a $2.2M settlement with HHS’s Office of Civil Rights about this very topic earlier this year and since, some would say, the grey areas have cleared up a bit more. 

HHS.gov mandates:

Health care providers cannot invite or allow media personnel, including film crews, into treatment or other areas of their facilities where patients’ PHI will be accessible in written, electronic, oral, or other visual or audio form, or otherwise make PHI accessible to the media, without prior written authorization from each individual who is or will be in the area or whose PHI otherwise will be accessible to the media.”  

When I began to think through all the scenarios where patients and family members are waiting, and where monitors, white boards, charts on desks, etc. are potentially exposed, it reminded me of my own experiences working in hospitals with the media. 

This rule, if interpreted strictly, could require consent in advance from all visitors, patients, those in waiting areas, and staff to ensure their awareness and permission for media to be there, pass through, etc.

For healthcare communicators, this is an utter logistical nightmare. 

Organizations can reach a point (and some have already) where all reporters and crew members are required to sign consents in advance of arrival on campus.  If you work for a provider and have a communications role, take this information back to your teams and revisit your media policies and procedures if you haven’t already.  

And keep in mind that post-production tricks to “cover up” identities will not do either.  According to HHS, the material was never HIPAA-compliant in the first place without prior consent.

6 Must-do’s for Hospital Communicators:

Assemble an ad-hoc work team to refresh current media policies and procedures.  Invite your regulatory and/or compliance officer, a patient care leader, HR liaison, operations director over security, environmental and/or guest services, and if available, legal counsel.

Update your consent forms to include reflect the clarification from HHS and be sure to secure valid consent before patient or PHI exposure.

Refresh your policies and procedures to outline your process for allowing or disallowing interviews to take place on units or from hospital beds, therapy areas, waiting rooms, etc.

Educate your security, environmental and guest services staff so they can become even bigger champions for protecting the privacy of all visitors and staff. They are often the first ones to encounter media visitors and can help mitigate potential issues.  

Consider staffing needs in the absence of media’s ability to capture B-roll on site.  Some marketing and communications teams are ramping up their AV support staff for providing canned B-roll to reporters as a substitute.

Work with your state hospital associations and their marketing and communications professional groups to centralize a plan for working with the media to educate them with consistent language, across markets and facilities. 

For more on media-related HIPAA requirements, check out HHS recently released frequently asked questions.


Nicole Kleinpeter is a Vice President at Lovell Communications. Connect with Nicole at Nicole@lovell.com.  


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