On Friday, March 27, The New York Times released an amazing, in-depth story about the toll the coronavirus is having on Bergamo, Italy, the hardest hit town in this beleaguered country.
It had pictures of overcrowded hospitals, with patients in beds lying in hallways.
It had pictures from inside homes, where emergency workers helped suspected COVID-19 patients from their beds.
It had pictures of hospital patients in intensive care units wearing oxygen-filled helmets to help them breathe, and photos from inside operating rooms where masked hospital staff members intubated patients.
In its vivid language and piercing photos, The New York Times created a piece that will live on for generations, capturing the needs of the present that can persuade the public to make necessary sacrifices for community good and a historical record that will help future generations understand what took place in Bergamo, Italy, during the 2020 global pandemic.
Don’t expect to see that kind of coverage of the coronavirus in the United States.
In the 1990s, Congress passed the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act, commonly known as HIPAA, which contained a privacy provision preventing health care providers from releasing patient information without the patient’s written consent. Health care providers can face steep penalties for violating HIPAA. East Coast hospitals have paid millions of dollars in fines for allowing television crews in to film reality ER shows.
“HIPAA is paramount,” said Wendy Burt, vice president of public relations and communications for the Minnesota Hospital Association. “Patient privacy has to be protected.”
There are good arguments for privacy. Patients might begin to distrust hospitals if they thought their personal medical information might become public. They might suffer repercussions from neighbors and employers. Family members might suffer if they witnessed the suffering of their loved on on a reality show, which has happened.
There are also arguments against privacy. Privacy laws prevent us from getting a first-hand glimpse into the strain placed on our hospitals during this pandemic. The public might be slower to take the coronavirus seriously in their own communities and to insist that hospitals get the equipment and supplies they need to handle the threat. There is much to be said for gaining the support of the public, and all the talking heads in the world can’t match the impact of seeing a hospital hallway lined with patients struggling to breathe.
There are other reasons hospitals don’t want the media inside their doors. Medical professionals want to focus on the patients and not worry about newspaper reporters or TV crews. They don’t want to spread additional germs to their patients, or contaminate extra people who might carry the disease back to the public. There are times they ban not just the news media, but even family members.
“Our number one priority is always the health and safety of our patients,” said Edward Reif, director of Community Relations and Development for Alomere Health. “Additionally, we are committed to protect the privacy and confidentiality of our patients, which is consistent with HIPAA laws. People’s health care is an extremely personal matter and we don’t feel it is our role to communicate any part of their experience.”
There are always arguments for and against the direction we go as a society. It used to be that community newspapers regularly published a list of who was in the hospital and why. Our society is increasingly demanding privacy from our institutions, perhaps because the internet has made us feel increasingly intruded upon.
But it’s important to remember, that just because you can’t see the crisis that might be taking place inside Minnesota hospitals doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It’s just that we have chosen privacy over transparency.
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“It’s Our Turn” is a weekly column that rotates among members of the Echo Press editorial staff.