News Day Tuesday: Should emergency personnel be able to access protected health information?

News Day Tuesday, stigma

For this week’s News Day Tuesday, I found a rather intriguing article on the NY Daily News about providing emergency personnel, particularly police officers, with information about a person’s mental health prior to arrival on the scene.

Shaun King makes an excellent argument in favor of this:

Sometimes people having a psychotic breakdown are completely unable to stop moving. It may be impossible to actually hear what someone else is saying. When men or women do not obey police officers, law enforcement is often trained to say it louder and clearer.

At first, I was all in–if we can save lives and keep people with severe mental illnesses from being, you know, shot because of misunderstandings and lack of knowledge, that’s awesome! But then I began to consider the cons, such as 911 operators (who may or may not have medical training themselves) having access to my protected health information (or PHI).

While I agree that relaying pertinent information about a person’s mental state, such as whether or not they are psychotic, could perhaps positively influence how police interact with said person, we have to consider the very real danger of this information making things worse. Despite the fact that emergency personnel and law enforcement officers should be held to a higher standard than the general public, they’re still human, and humans are prone to biases. That’s one reason the whole mental illness stigma is still a thing.

Using the same example of a person suffering from psychosis, I worry that this person could fall victim to an officer’s personal biases and be treated worse because of their mental illness(es). And frankly, that thought is scary as hell.

This danger could be mitigated, to an extent, by requiring further training on how to deal with calls involving any kind of mental illness. But there are the usual concerns of how to fund the training and the risk that a law enforcement officer could, in the heat of the moment, completely forget (or disregard) what they learned. At the end of the day, human behavior can be pretty unpredictable, especially in situations as tense as a 911 call.

Even if this weren’t a concern–and it very much is, given the troubling track record of police interactions with those suffering from mental illness–I know a lot of people simply wouldn’t feel comfortable with having non-medical personnel having access to their charts. I worked in medical billing for a brief time and often felt uncomfortable with the amount of access had, even though I sometimes needed to explain charges and medical codes to patients and therefore needed to be able to see their charts.

I’m definitely straddling the fence on this one, at least for now. What do you think?

You can read the full article here.

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2 thoughts on “News Day Tuesday: Should emergency personnel be able to access protected health information?

  1. Lack of Information, lack of understanding, training only in subduing people – not de-escalating situations. This is the key component of police and 1st responders’ training that makes no sense. They are not trained to deal with the very situations they must face everyday – most situations call for far less of the equipment that they wear and much more of the grey matter between their ears in use. If there is NO training in recognizing symptoms of a mental illness, how can there be any way they can really deal with the situations correctly. Answer? They cannot. This is why Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett recently enjoined the Milwaukee Police Department to get ALL its people complete training in Crisis Intervention. In Milwaukee at least, it is becoming part of the standard training of every police officer. Once trained, even if you did not know the specifics of any one case, you’d handle any situation better.

    1. I agree whole-heartedly! This is why I’m on the fence about the whole releasing personal information thing–if we can come up with a way to “flag” distress calls without compromising the individual’s dignity and privacy, I think that would be best. But there definitely needs to be more training on how to de-escalate situations and work with people who may have severe mental illnesses while respecting the limitations the illness may cause.

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