Commentary

Is HIPAA critical?


 

Ignorance may be bliss for some. But as I sit here in my scenic social isolation on the Maine coast I find that, like most people, what I don’t know unsettles me. How is the COVID-19 virus spread? Does my wife’s wipe down of the doorknobs after I return from the grocery store really make us any less likely to contract the virus? Is wearing my homemade bandana face mask doing anything to protect me? I suspect not, but I wear it as a statement of courtesy and solidarity to my fellow community members.

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Does the 6-foot rule make any sense? I’ve read that it is based on a study dating back to the 1930s. I’ve seen images of the 25-foot droplet plume blasting out from a sneeze and understand that, as a bicyclist, I may be generating a shower of droplets in my wake. But, are those droplets a threat to anyone I pedal by if I am symptom free? What does being a carrier mean when we are talking about COVID-19?

What makes me more vulnerable to this particular virus as an apparently healthy septuagenarian? What collection of misfortunes have fallen on those younger victims of the pandemic? How often was it genetic?

Of course, none of us has the information yet that can provide us answers. This vacuum has attracted scores of “experts” bold enough or careless enough to venture an opinion. They may have also issued a caveat, but how often have the media failed to include it in the report or buried it in the fine print at the end of the story?

My discomfort with this information void has left me and you and everyone else to our imaginations to craft our own explanations. So, I try to piece together a construct based on what I can glean from what I read and see in the news because like most people I fortunately have no first-hand information about even a single case. The number of deaths is horrifying, but may not have hit close to home and given most of us a real personal sense of the illness and its character.

Maine is a small state with just over a million inhabitants, and most of us have some connection to one another. It may be that a person is the second cousin of someone who used to live 2 miles down the road. But, there is some feeling of familiarity. We have had deaths related to COVID-19, but very scanty information other than the county about where they occurred and whether the victim was a resident of an extended care facility. We are told very little if any details about exposure as officials invoke HIPAA regulations that leave us in the dark. Other than one vague reference to a “traveling salesman” who may have introduced the virus to several nursing homes, there has been very little information about how the virus may have been spread here in Maine. Even national reports of the deaths of high-profile entertainers and retired athletes are usually draped in the same haze of privacy.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff

Most of us don’t need to know the names and street addresses of the victims but a few anonymous narratives that include some general information on how epidemiologists believe clusters began and propagated would help us understand our risks with just a glimmer of clarity.

Of course the epidemiologists may not have the answers we are seeking because they too are struggling to untangle connections hampered by concerns of privacy. There is no question that privacy must remain an important part of the physician-patient relationship. But a pandemic has thrown us into a situation where common sense demands that HIPAA be interpreted with an emphasis on the greater good. Finding that balance between privacy and public knowledge will continue to be one of our greatest challenges.

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Email him at [email protected].

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