As a nurse, you are highly trained not only in caring for patients’ physical well-being, but also in respecting their privacy. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) establishes detailed patient privacy requirements that all health care providers and institutions must follow. It protects a wide range of private information, including medical records.
Speaking up when you notice something’s wrong
Nurses are in a unique position to report privacy violations that might otherwise go unnoticed, in addition to having an obligation to place patient safety first. Sometimes nurses become aware that patients are not receiving the appropriate level of care and feel trapped when they want to speak up about it but are afraid to speak up. Nurses may feel like they do not want to lose their jobs, but also feel like they do not want to compromise their obligations to place the patient first either. For example, a nurse may become aware that a patient’s life is at risk or that a medical procedure was not performed properly, but the nurse is afraid to speak up about it. As an advocate for patients – many of whom are vulnerable and unable to stand up for themselves – you are on the front lines of their day-to-day care. When you see something that isn’t right, you may feel compelled to do something about it. By speaking up, you will not only safeguard the rights of the patient whose safety is compromised or whose privacy was infringed, but your courage may also spur broader policy changes to prevent such violations from occurring in the future. And more importantly, you may help to save lives.
It is understood that you may be worried about the impact on your own career. You have bills to pay and perhaps a family to support. You have likely worked hard to get where you are today. You don’t want to end up being shunned, ignored or otherwise mistreated as a result of reporting violations in the workplace.
You should never have to endure a negative work environment or other consequences just because you did the right thing.
Retaliation is illegal
The law recognizes the key role whistleblowers play in enforcing patients’ safety and their privacy rights. It prohibits employers from retaliating in any way against employees who report violations. Retaliation includes poor performance reviews, a demotion or threat of one, assignment of less favorable shifts or working conditions, loss of seniority, termination, harassment, suspension, and any other negative employment actions. These protections apply even if you report a suspected violation, regardless of whether it turns out to be a full-blown breach.
You may also be able to report the misconduct anonymously. Many employers have internal processes for filing anonymous complaints. A lawyer who focuses on employment law can also help you identify the best way to bring a violation to light without disclosing your identity.
Whatever course of action you decide to take, you can sleep better at night knowing you made a difference in protecting the safety and privacy of patients.