Social media was abuzz last week over the Utah burn unit nurse who was arrested for protecting the rights of her patient. The story goes that a police officer (who apparently was a part-time paramedic) wanted to take a blood sample from an unconscious patient who was injured in a deadly collision involving another driver – presumably to test for the presence of alcohol or drugs.  However, the patient was not considered to be suspect in the incident, was not under arrest and the police officer did not have a warrant.  Therefore, under hospital policy and relevant legislation, the only way the blood could be drawn was with the patient’s consent, which was not possible at that moment.  The nurse reportedly stood her ground, refusing to allow the blood sample to be taken (even as she was being handcuffed and dragged away) and is being lauded as a hero. Yet, she is the first one to say that she was only doing what anyone else would have done in the same circumstance. I hope she’s right.

It is conceivable that something similar could happen here – although perhaps not quite that dramatic. I am aware of several situations where the RT on-duty was pressured to provide patient information to police in the absence of the patient’s consent, a subpoena or a warrant. And while it may be natural to want to cooperate with the police, RTs are prohibited from disclosing personal health information to a third party unless the patient consents or the disclosure is required by law (e.g., the requirement to report suspected child abuse or neglect under the such legislation as the Child and Family Services Act). 

It is very easy in the situation such as the one faced by the Utah nurse to be intimidated by someone who aggressively asserts that they have the ultimate legal authority.  However, even in the case where a police officer has a warrant or subpoena, the RT still has defined rights and responsibilities. A subpoena compels the RT to attend a court proceeding, but it does not permit them to divulge to anyone (even the police) confidential patient information until they are ordered to do so by a judge. And in the case of a search warrant, the RT has the right to inspect the warrant and must only hand over patient information that is explicitly outlined in the warrant.

I watched the video of the nurse’s arrest, and I didn’t see too many of her colleagues rushing to her aid.  It is important to remember that you can be the only person in a room to believe something, and you can still be right. Therefore, there may be times when you are not getting any back up from those around you and that makes it all the more important for you to stand your ground and protect your patient.

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