Sunday, June 7, 2020     Volume: 21, Issue: 14

Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on April 8th, 2020, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 21, Issue 6 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 21, Issue 6

Local hospitals talk about their changing roles during the pandemic

By Malea Martin

In a matter of weeks, hospitals and public health departments have gone from organizations that rarely make the news to ones that are providing it. On top of that shift, the health care industry must also grapple with disseminating this information in a way that complies with social distancing, avoids inciting mass panic, and protects patient privacy. And of course, this all must find its place next to the unequivocal top priority: Keeping people alive.

“We have had to quickly implement a process for providing daily reports, amidst other surge planning,” a Cottage Health representative told the Sun in an email. “That frequency of data is a shift in what the public typically expects to see from hospitals in more normal times. People want more information more often. And meeting face-to-face is a limited option, so this is becoming more and more a digital exchange of information even in interviews and meetings.”

Lompoc Valley Medical Center (LVMC) CEO Steve Popkin said that the population that they are obliged to keep informed is different from that of government entities like the public health department.

“While the governmental entities focus on providing region-wide communication, we focus on providing information to our local community,” he said in an email.

As to how LVMC feels about Santa Barbara County’s information dissemination and transparency, Popkin declined to comment. A hospital’s duty, he wrote, is to “keep its community informed of relevant information and trends.” 

“That might include information such as the actual numbers and trending of positive and negative COVID-19 tests results, hospitalizations, ventilator usage, mortality rate, testing protocols, etc.,” Popkin wrote. “Although the hospitals and governmental entities closely monitor and aggressively address issues such as inventory of various PPE [personal protective equipment], and testing availability, reporting of the actual numbers, which change daily, provides little public benefit.”

Cottage Health similarly put an emphasis on giving out information that is not just factual, but also useful. The hospital said that includes information about supplies and testing availability.

“We are sharing reports that include the number of tests done at our hospitals and the number of ventilators and supplies available to Cottage Health,” Cottage Health’s representative wrote. “We had many requests for this data, and Cottage Health recently began releasing daily reports to local media and posting it to our website. We want the public to have the facts about the situation we are in, because it involves everyone.”

A difficulty for any health care provider while standing in the middle of the media spotlight is toeing the line between keeping the public informed and maintaining patient privacy. Popkin said there’s a clear line between the two.

“The information we need to provide to the public to keep them informed is aggregated and does not involve the disclosure of any individual’s protected health information,” he wrote. 

He also said that some Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act regulations have been temporarily relaxed to enable “the use of alternative technology solutions to get needed medical care to members of our respective communities, including expanded use of telemedicine to enable individuals to get physician care while staying at home.”

Cottage Health said that finding this line has been, at times, challenging.

“Cottage is committed to patient privacy, so this has been a careful balance of trying to provide information to the public about the status of the virus in our community and our hospitals, while always first protecting the privacy of our patients,” Cottage Health’s representative wrote. “It puts hospitals and other health care providers in a uniquely challenging situation. Even if the public sees information widely reported and shared, we are not able to confirm protected health information without a patient’s consent.”

Similar to LVMC, Cottage Health officials said that they can provide aggregate data and information that isn’t identifiable to a specific patient and that they “tend to take the side of caution in disclosures,” leaning toward prioritizing patient privacy.

“At Cottage, our goal is to provide information that is factual and useful for our community, so they can be aware of our current situation and partner to keep everyone safe,” Cottage Health wrote. “It’s our job and our responsibility to the communities we serve, and we will honor that every day as we get through this together.”

Marian Regional Medical Center was contacted for comment, but didn’t respond before press time.

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