As more people are vaccinated and once again going to hospitals and clinics for checkups after many routine interactions were pushed online the past year, there is one question patients want to know: Has my health care provider been vaccinated against COVID-19?
It is a question patients might not get answered. State and federal laws like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, fondly known as HIPAA, protect the medical privacy of nurses and doctors, just as it does for patients.
Regardless of medical privacy laws, patients are still asking the COVID-19 vaccination status of health care professionals. We delve into how Seattle area hospitals are handling this question for this week’s FAQ Friday.
What is HIPAA?
HIPAA sets the floor for patient privacy laws, and then states can layer their own regulations on top of it.
The act was passed in 1996 in an effort to let people more easily change jobs with their health insurance and to limit insurance companies from denying coverage to people with preexisting conditions. The act also included an often-cited privacy rule.
Wait — aren’t most health care workers vaccinated?
Yes, but perhaps not as many as you might think, even though they were among the first in line for coveted, early doses of COVID-19 vaccine.
A Kaiser Family Foundation/Washington Post poll showed a bit more than half of the nation’s front-line health workers were vaccinated as of early March. An additional 19% said they planned to get the shots. The undecided made up 12% of those polled and about 18% don’t plan on getting the shots. State-level numbers aren’t available for Washington.
Will I be told if health care workers interacting with me are vaccinated?
It depends. A patient doesn’t have the legal right to know if a health care worker has been vaccinated — just like anyone else protected by medical privacy laws. But a person can always ask the question of their nurse practitioner or whomever else they are interacting with.
“It’s not a right that a patient has to know. That is something that a health care provider may be comfortable in sharing but also may not,” said Dr. Thomas May, the Floyd and Judy Rogers endowed professor at Washington State University’s Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine.
The majority of UW Medicine’s clinical workforce has been vaccinated for COVID-19 and the staff is not required to disclose their vaccination status, but can if they choose, said Susan Gregg, spokesperson for UW Medicine.
“It is private, protected health care information,” she said.
Kaiser Permanente Washington and Swedish Medical Center also leave it up to staffers if they want to let patients know they have been vaccinated. Swedish employees were told they can share their vaccination status but can cite HIPAA if they chose not to.
Virginia Mason Franciscan Health is encouraging employees eligible to be vaccinated to do so. Because being vaccinated isn’t a requirement for employment any hospital employee being vaccinated is treated as a patient, said Cary Evans, vice president of communications at Virginia Mason Franciscan Health.
“They are not required to disclose this personal health information, which is shielded by federal law protecting patient privacy,” he wrote in an email. “It is each team member’s choice how they respond to question about their vaccination status.”
Because of the suspicion some people have in regard to COVID-19 and the vaccines, health care professionals might feel an obligation to be an example and let patients know that they are willing to do it, May said.
“A lot of physicians will think, ‘Well, I’m confident in the safety and I want to demonstrate that to my patients by being public with my vaccination status,’ ” he said.