Starting Saturday, Meritus Medical Center will no longer release information about patients' conditions to the media, the hospital announced Thursday.
The change is meant to protect patients' privacy and safety, Meritus Communications Manager Nicole Jovel said.
Currently, when a caller inquires about a patient by name, hospital staff members are authorized to provide the patient's health condition in general terms such as "critical," "serious," "fair," or "good," provided that the patient has not asked the hospital to withhold that information.
The Herald-Mail has routinely included this information in stories about accident and crime victims.
Release of general conditions is allowed under the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, or HIPAA.
However, hospitals are not obligated to provide that information, and the Maryland Hospitals Association said there are other hospitals in the state that do not release patient conditions, Jovel said.
"In conversations with clinicians and administrators, we determined we needed to really increase the level of privacy we were providing," she said.
One concern was that releasing information could inadvertently put patients at risk, Jovel said. For example, the hospital might not know initially that a patient is at the hospital as a result of domestic violence, she said.
Whenever possible, the hospital gives patients the opportunity to classify information about themselves as confidential, but very few choose to do so, she said.
Another concern was inadvertently misrepresenting a patient's condition.
"You might come in, and you're in serious condition, but by the next morning when the newspaper's printed, you're in fair condition, so we've inadvertently misrepresented that," Jovel said.
"For us, there were just too many 'what ifs' that we felt that we had to uphold the highest level of safety and security and privacy," she said.
Family and friends may still call the hospital's information line to learn a patient's room number and phone number, Jovel said.
Media interviews with patients will be allowed if the patient fills out a consent form, she said.
Nothing in the new policy prevents patients or their families from voluntarily reporting patient conditions or other information to the media, she said.