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Home > Topics > EMS Advocacy
August 02, 2012
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EMS News in Focus
by Arthur Hsieh

Why responder protection could trump patient privacy

We must have avenue to obtain information, such as HIV-positive status, critical to our own decisions about our health

By Arthur Hsieh

Editor's note: A bill passed in British Columbia is facing scrutiny for forcing patients to provide private information if their bodily fluids come into contact with their rescuers.

Years ago I was assaulted by a patient. During the altercation, I was bitten and badly scratched while we were treating her for a suspected heroin overdose.

There was a period of a few hours when it was not clear whether the patient was HIV-positive; it turned out she was.

Back then, the facts about HIV transmission were not as clear as they are now, and the post-exposure treatment of the day had serious side effects.

The anxiety of not knowing and facing a poor choice of consequences was not a fun period in my life.

The experience would have seriously been compounded in my decision making process had I not known the status of the patient.

I can understand the government official's desire to safeguard the privacy of patients. But I fail to see how this bill would do that under the circumstances described.

The healthcare providers involved in the patient's care have the right to know when their own lives — not to mention the lives of their families and loved ones — may be personally affected by the condition of the patient.

It's probably true that in most cases of exposure, patients will gladly disclose information about their health status.

But certainly for EMS providers, many of our interactions are not cooperative in nature.

In these rare but significant situations, we must have an avenue to obtain information critical to our own decisions about our health.

About the author

EMS1 Editor in Chief Art Hsieh, MA, NREMT-P currently teaches at the Public Safety Training Center, Santa Rosa Junior College in the Emergency Care Program. Since 1982, Art has worked as a line medic and chief officer in the private, third service and fire-based EMS. He has directed both primary and EMS continuing education programs. Art is a textbook author, has presented at conferences nationwide, and continues to provide patient care at an EMS service in Northern California. Contact Art at Art.Hsieh@ems1.com.
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