Whether we like it or not, HIPAA (Health Information Privacy Act) no longer extends to just medical professionals but has invaded every aspect of life including our relationships with one another. For generations, when someone was ill, injured, or in trouble, people would pass this information on at church, Grange, Sunday supper, a quick phone call or another community gathering spot and respond accordingly. Today, discussing someone’s health is pretty much akin to gossip in our uber confidential society.
I was recently reminded of this because of an individual’s behavior that’s putting others at risk. “We’ve done the best we can and have let people know of the situation,” one person noted. However, that isn’t true. Those who know are very concerned, but for the most part the community is unaware because there is an unwritten rule that health related information not be shared.
So what’s the difference between giving information because you care and gossiping? Should you do it?
Lets be clear, every one gossips. We talk among friends, colleagues, neighbors and family. It can be meaningless, but it’s also a way people bond and most importantly, it’s how we come to understand societal norms and acceptable behaviors. So in essence, there is value in this practice.
What’s not okay is passing along information that you don’t know to be true, and/or which can be very damaging. It is also harmful when you vicariously describe someone’s pain and suffering or gloat over their difficulties. Getting pleasure out of someone’s misfortune isn’t okay and it generally doesn’t bode well in the long run for those who like to “gossip” in this manner.
The arrival of HIPAA brought about a societal shift where it’s no longer okay to talk about health status, including your own to some extent. In fact, people have been sued and lost jobs because of it.
One of the worse examples I recall was when a teacher was dying and the school adopted a “confidentiality” gag order, with students being kept in the dark. Without belaboring it, things did not go well for the students and some of the faculty when the teacher died.
My concern with this approach is that we are fostering secrecy to a level whereby those most in need of support and help aren’t getting it. Further, by needing to keep things “secret” more power is given to disease then it deserves. When this happens, instead of fostering support, caring and compassion, we encourage fear, shame, and guilt.
Bottom line-unless you are acting in a professional manner under HIPAA, you aren’t governed by it. That said, use discretion and tact about what and to whom you share information.