JPP, Adam Schefter, and HIPAA: A Trilogy of Errors
July 15, 2015
July 15, 2015
New York Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul was admitted to a Miami hospital last week due to a fireworks mishap, leaving fans and media alike to speculate the seriousness of his injury and the long-term effects that it might have on his career. If closing out his Fourth of July weekend in a hospital wasn’t enough of a surprise for the Pro-Bowler affectionately known as JPP, one can only imagine what might have gone through his mind when he saw a picture of his own medical record on Twitter.
On Wednesday evening, four days after the fireworks incident, ESPN reporter Adam Schefter broke the news to his 3.8 million Twitter followers that Pierre-Paul underwent an amputation on his right index finger. Almost immediately, the narrative dominating this story shifted to a widespread debate over the legality and ethics of breaking news in such a manner. #HIPAA began trending on Twitter as people wondered if Schefter violated the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), designed in part to protect the privacy of patients and their medical information.
If Pierre-Paul did not consent to the record’s release, according to the law, Schefter did not do anything illegal because HIPAA applies to medical professionals, not news media. As Schefter supporters point out, the reporter simply did his job after receiving a piece of information—and the blame lies solely with whomever leaked the document in the first place. In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Schefter explains that “In trying to be thorough and accurate, we delivered that news as soon as possible with the supporting proof if it happened. To me, that’s just doing my job.”
Although it is understandable that the provision of such information presents a great opportunity to break and subsequently control the development of a story, the implications of Schefter’s reporting damage the way we collectively think about and communicate health information. Given the number of security breaches that health systems and their patients suffer, the healthcare industry has stepped up its efforts to better protect patient privacy. It is therefore disappointing and alarming that a healthcare professional would choose to breach the very confidence that patients are supposed to entrust with their care providers in this manner.
In addition to receiving negative attention, Schefter’s decision to post the picture of Pierre-Paul’s medical record harms the reputation that he worked so hard to build. Several current and former NFL players took to twitter to criticize the ESPN reporter for his actions. As Vincent Frank writes in Forbes, Schefter could have simply tweeted the news without the picture because “His word is taken as gospel. He has connections most of us could scarcely imagine. He’s also been above the fray for the most part. And in reality, that’s why he’s among the most respected…. That’s also why Wednesday’s situation was so disturbing.”
This conversation about the complexities of HIPAA and journalism is not ending anytime soon. Although Schefter and ESPN face no legal ramifications, the reporter and his network will continue to weather criticism from the NFL, as well as the medical and journalism communities. The hospital which performed Pierre-Paul’s surgery faces unwanted media attention, an internal investigation and a possible lawsuit. As for JPP—well, he has his own things to worry about.