Exploring the Relationship Between Healthcare Professionals and Law Enforcement in America

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Even before the COVID-19 pandemic spread around the world, healthcare careers were a popular choice for millennials looking to make a difference in the world. As of 2018, 36% of millennials were employed in the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries. And with an even greater emphasis on public health in the wake of the pandemic, healthcare continues to attract countless young professionals.

No matter one’s healthcare-related job description, though, roles often overlap in the realm of public health and social justice. Nurses, for example, may find themselves advocating for a patient in a legal capacity, or working with law enforcement to solve a crime using forensics. Yet despite the best intentions of law enforcement officials, patients remain the primary focus of healthcare professionals, and protecting those patients is of paramount importance.

How Healthcare Professionals Can Advocate for Their Patients

In fact, patient privacy is a cornerstone of modern healthcare. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy Rule of 1996 was designed to protect patient records and personal health data while also giving patients greater control of their sensitive information. So what happens when a law enforcement official asks a healthcare worker to compromise that sensitive data, and/or the provider-patient relationship? 

The intervention of law enforcement in healthcare settings is an especially relevant consideration in the current US political climate: although the widespread Black Lives Matter protests across the nation in the summer of 2020 have essentially trickled into obscurity, the threat of police violence remains very real. As a result, healthcare professionals are increasingly working to balance public health interests and the pandemic response with the reality of police violence. 

It’s a delicate balance: police brutality is a matter of public health, and healthcare professionals must do their part to protect those patients injured by law enforcement officials. Providing quality healthcare and safeguarding patient privacy is an ideal start, but advocacy also plays a part. Further, the health of the nation as a whole may be greatly served by reducing law enforcement funding in favor of improved mental health and emergency care services. 

In point of fact, the concept of reducing the power of law enforcement can go even further, by emphasizing mental health care and advocacy in lieu of traditional law enforcement for non-violent offenses. Too many incidents have shown that what begins as non-violent can end violently when responders — law enforcement or otherwise — are not properly trained in mental health care. No matter what the future holds, however, healthcare professionals should continue to advocate for patients and keep medical data secure, by any means necessary.  

The Legacy and Future of Patient Privacy

For starters, one of the biggest flaws of the HIPAA Privacy Rule is that it exists only as a baseline. Patient privacy laws can vary considerably from one state to another, and digital technology has complicated matters even further, as electronic health records (EHRs) are increasingly favored over bulky paper forms and records. To ensure HIPAA compliance, many medical facilities use secure tactics such as data encryption when collecting, accessing, and storing sensitive patient data. 

It’s also important to note that the HIPAA Privacy Rule does allow for some exceptions, especially when a patient’s life may be in danger. Healthcare workers must also comply with official requests from law enforcement officers, at least those with the legal paperwork to back it up. 

If a law enforcement official produces a warrant, for instance, healthcare workers must then share relevant information in line with the issuing judge’s orders. Similar to the warrant issued for wiretaps and other forms of electronic surveillance, a warrant requesting medical data indicates that there is probable cause that a crime has been committed. Law enforcement officials with a warrant in hand are well within their rights to collect various forms of evidence, including individual medical records or blood samples.

HIPAA exceptions go both ways, though. A healthcare worker can report patient health information to law enforcement without fear of incurring a HIPAA violation in the event they believe a crime has been committed. Healthcare workers can also freely share information to “prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat to the health or safety of an individual or the public.” This may include suspected domestic violence, sexual assault, or evidence of a debilitating and possibly dangerous mental health condition.

Regarding Systemic Racism, Privacy, and Mental Health

In terms of mental health, minority populations are especially susceptible to issues stemming from racism and other forms of marginalization. Racism has been linked to anxiety and depression, yet the negative mental health effects of discrimination aren’t widely discussed. Indeed, it’s easy to overlook the issue of mental health when one is worried about police brutality or violence based on the color of one’s skin.

For some social justice advocates, both inside the healthcare arena and elsewhere, defunding the police seems like a viable solution. Others have suggested that US law enforcement would benefit from emulating the 19 nations around the world where police officers are unarmed, including Norway and Iceland. In these nations, incidents of police violence are rare or even nonexistent. What do these examples mean for the US? This will be explored in a future piece for Libel IFLRY.

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