Dissemination of hospital-patient data curbed Media now need patients' consent to obtain detailed information.

July 30, 1991

Under a Maryland law that took effect July 1, hospitals are no longer providing the news media with the identities or specific information about the injuries of patients without the patients' expressed consent.

The law prohibits hospitals from disclosing all but the most general information about a patient's medical condition without that patient's written consent.

Health care workers are instructed to give reporters only general condition information (such as critical or stable) and only if the reporter provides the patient's name.

The law was passed in January 1990, but it did not take effect until this summer to give hospitals, the media and other groups time to adjust to the new provisions.

Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, D-Balto. Co., the bill's chief sponsor and chairman of the Economic and Environmental Affairs subcommittee on health, said the bill is aimed at preserving patients' privacy. It expands on an earlier bill that affected only mental health information.

Until the law took effect, hospitals routinely would provide to reporters information about a patient's identity and injuries

"The legislature has put into law what has been a principle of the American health care system forever -- confidentiality," said Richard H. Wade, vice president of communications at the Maryland Hospital Association.

But John M. Lemmon, managing editor of The Evening Sun, called the legislation "ill-conceived."

"We understand the need for patients' privacy, just as we understand and deal with other privacy issues in a sensitive and responsible way every day," Lemmon said.

"But this government-imposed gag rule is not in the interest of the patient, the public or the hospitals. This law may have had a noble purpose -- protecting the confidentiality of medical records -- but it has a far more sweeping effect, stifling the free flow of information that is required in an open society. Hospitals are important sources of news. This ill-conceived law irresponsibly deprives the public -- not the media -- of this information."

Wade said the law does not prohibit anyone from trying to obtain a patient's medical records. But people who lie to obtain the information could be hit with a civil lawsuit for violation of privacy, he said.

Medical workers who knowingly give out confidential information may be charged with a misdemeanor and fined $1,000 for the first offense and up to $5,000 for any subsequent offense.

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