In Depth

Confidentiality Confrontations

Privacy Regulations Set Hospitals, Journalists at Odds

Editor’s note: The Association of Health Care Journalists has been examining hospitals’ practice of requiring journalists to sign confidentiality agreements, a trend that has been increasing since the patient privacy rules in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 took effect. The AHCJ has been preparing a policy statement on the issue, which it is expected to issue soon. The following story on the subject is reprinted from the association’s fall 2007 issue of HealthBeat.


Eastern Maine Medical Center this fall began asking reporters coming to the hospital to sign a patient confidentiality statement. The agreement bars journalists from disclosing information they discover at the facility that the hospital deems “not related to the story.”

This means that if a reporter goes to the hospital to check out the latest CT scan or MRI and notices the governor or another celebrity being wheeled in on a stretcher, the journalist would be prohibited from reporting it.

The penalty?

“Failure to do so may result in damage to the relationship [with the hospital] and the access to patients [the] news organization currently enjoys with Eastern Maine Medical Center,” reads the statement.

The Bangor Daily News and three Maine television stations have refused to sign the agreement.

As a result, none of them are allowed into the hospital to report news. They still can communicate with hospital personnel by telephone.

Eastern Maine is one of a growing number of hospitals across the country asking reporters to sign confidentiality statements.

The hospitals say they are following guidelines set up [in 2007] by the Joint Commission (formerly the Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Health Care Organizations).

Commission spokesman Ken Powers said the organization’s guidelines are meant to further protect the public’s privacy while in the hospital. He said it is up to the individual hospital to decide how to implement the policy.

Hospitals and the press have always had a challenging relationship, and the privacy rules in HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) further strained communications as hospitals have grown more fearful about the inadvertent release of patient information.

Bangor Daily News health reporter Meg Haskell did not sign the Eastern Maine Medical Center confidentiality agreement.

“Of course, we all understand the issue of patient confidentiality, but we question signing an agreement we don’t completely understand,” she said. She notes the hospital statement asks the media to follow all Joint Commission confidentiality policies but does not spell out what they are.

Eastern Maine public relations officials, some of whom are former journalists, acknowledge the confidentiality statement puts media in an awkward spot. For instance, a reporter who is in the hospital for treatment is not required to sign the statement and thus is free to contact the media on anything he or she sees at the hospital. But if the reporter were on duty at the hospital, he or she would not be allowed to disclose patient information to the media.

“This new program is not without its headaches,” one hospital official said.

Eastern Maine and local media are planning to meet to discuss the issue.

According to its Web site, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center asks the media who go into any patient care areas to sign a confidentiality statement. Its statement reads: “In the course of my observation at CCHMC, I may see, overhear, access or temporarily possess PHI (protected health information) of a patient. I understand that such PHI must be maintained in the strictest confidence. As a condition of my observation or visit, I hereby agree that I will not at any time during or after my observation at CCHMC use, disclose or give PHI to any person whatsoever for any purpose. I understand that a violation of this agreement may result in civil and/or criminal penalties under federal and state law.”

Rick Wade, spokesman for the American Hospital Association, said he is not surprised some hospitals are asking reporters to sign confidentiality statements. “HIPAA has changed the world, and some hospitals feel like they are under the gun,” he said. “Every hospital is reacting to its own experience.”

Some of the concerns arise when celebrities are in the hospital and reporters “stake out” the facility to learn any details, Wade said.

Of course, the media are not the only ones snooping around when a celebrity visits a hospital.
In October, more than two dozen staffers at a New Jersey hospital were suspended for four weeks after allegedly peeking at actor George Clooney’s confidential medical information after he was hurt in a motorcycle accident. Clooney was treated at Palisades Medical Center in North Bergen, N.J.