Privacy won't curb giving

Medical records: Federal rules on confidentiality may force changes in hospital fund-raising.

March 15, 2000

HOSPITALS see people who walk through their doors in two roles -- as patients and potential donors -- and they have routinely used patient records to target fund-raising solicitations. The federal government rightly wants to put an end to that practice.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' proposed rule would allow the transfer of electronic records without patient permission for three broad purposes: patient treatment, payment and institutional operations. Asking patients for money isn't among the options.

Hospitals say this rule would shut down their fund-raising efforts. The Association for Healthcare Philanthropy says the change would slash the $3.5 billion its 2,800 members receive annually. The Greater Baltimore Medical Center said that 69 percent of its 1999 donations were made by grateful patients.

But in this day of computerized medical records, the potential abuses of patients' privacy -- confidential information could be posted on the Internet, for example -- demand that tight controls be put into place.

Transferring patient records to the hospital's development office may appear to be more benign than selling them to pharmaceutical firms or direct marketers, but the practice nonetheless violates the patient's privacy.

If the nation's hospitals believe their patients are willing givers, they should have no trouble obtaining consent from the patients to transfer a portion of their medical records to the hospitals' fund-raising arm.

Most patients would sign a consent form -- just as they now sign reams of hospital, medical and insurance forms -- before they receive any treatment.

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