Conference Coverage

Balancing privacy, protection in at-risk MS patients



Finding a balance between maintaining patient privacy and preventing self-harm is crucial in multiple sclerosis patients at risk for suicide.

“There are some situations where concern for a patient’s safety overrides [confidentiality],” Lauren Sankary, an attorney and neuroethics fellow at the Cleveland Clinic, said at the annual meeting of the Consortium of Multiple Sclerosis Centers. “I want to empower you to feel confident to break confidentiality when it makes sense based on your professional judgment.”

It’s not clear whether suicide is more common in patients with MS. A systematic review from 2012 found that most studies reviewed documented a higher rate of suicide in patients with MS, compared with the general population (J Psychosom Res. 2012 Dec;73(6):411-7) while a report from 2017 noted that rates of suicidal intent were elevated in MS (Mult Scler. 2017 Jun;23(7):923-927). Conversely, a French study from 2017 found that excess suicide risk may not be true for MS patients (Mult Scler. 2017 May;23(6):864-871).

When considering breaking confidentiality to seek help for a patient, Ms. Sankary said, “the ethical tension is that on the one hand, disclosing protected health information may protect patient safety. But on the other hand, it may threaten the therapeutic relationship. It’s a true ethical dilemma, and part of what’s difficult is figuring out in which situations are we willing to accept these tradeoffs.”

Consider professional ethical guidelines, federal and local laws, and clinical protocols in the decision making process, she advised.

On the federal level, HIPAA allows the breaking of confidentiality when it “is necessary to prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat to the health or safety of a person or the public.”

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights notes that “HIPAA permits a covered health care provider to notify a patient’s family members of a serious and imminent threat to the health or safety of the patient or others if those family members are in a position to lessen or avert the threat. Thus, to the extent that a provider determines that there is a serious and imminent threat of a patient physically harming self or others, HIPAA would permit the provider to warn the appropriate person(s) of the threat, consistent with his or her professional ethical obligations and State law requirements.”

Confidential information cannot be disclosed to just anyone, however. HIPAA notes that it must be disclosed only to “a person or persons reasonably able to prevent or lessen the threat, including the target of the threat.”

HIPAA doesn’t require medical professionals to report suicide risk, Ms. Sankary said, but some states require certain professionals to do so. And some states require certain professionals to alert parents if children are suicidal.

The laws mainly affect mental health professionals but may extend to physicians and nurses, according to the National Conference of State Legislators. For example, New Jersey professionals in several fields have a duty to warn in certain situations, including the risk of self-harm.

The American Medical Association’s Code of Medical Ethics suggests physicians must “inform the patient when there has been a significant infringement on privacy of which the patient would otherwise not be aware,” Ms. Sankary said.

Ms. Sankary reported no relevant disclosures.

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