Lorena: John Bobbitt and the HIPAA Privacy Rule

Producer Jordan Peele has worked to shed new light on the Lorena Bobbitt case that dominated headlines and spawned an international media circus.

Source: WIN12_ET / shutterstock

As discussed in the new Amazon Prime documentary, Lorena, what began as a typical night in 1993 ended with Lorena cutting off her husband’s penis and throwing it from her car window.  She later described years of domestic violence, while her husband attempted to paint a picture of a woman scorned.  Amidst the interviews of smirking witnesses (including John, himself) telling R-rated jokes and making comments about squirming first responders, some may be surprised to find interviews with the doctors involved in the reattachment surgery.  But what about medical privacy?

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy Rule created national standards to protect individuals’ medical records and other personal health information.  The Privacy Rule aimed to give patients more control over their health information, set boundaries for the use and release of health records, and establish appropriate safeguards.  It has also unintentionally resulted in a lot of confusion, with many believing that any issue involving medical information gives rise to HIPAA concerns.

The HIPAA Privacy Rule covers health plans, healthcare clearinghouses, certain healthcare providers, and their business associates.  These entities are required to put certain safeguards in place for the protection of individually identifiable health information.  The situation can really become muddled when a covered entity is also an individual’s employer.  Those employers that are also covered entities should note that the Privacy Rule does not cover employment records, although other laws (such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, as amended) may apply.  In addition, the Privacy Rule does protect medical or health plan records if the employee is also a patient of the provider or a member of the health plan.

When Does HIPPA Go Out the Window?

So, can doctors start giving media interviews on high profile medical cases, such as the Bobbitt case?  The answer is that it depends.  First, the HIPAA Privacy Rule was enacted years after the Bobbitt case began making headlines and those cringe-worthy, grainy interviews began airing.  Second, an individual may sign an authorization allowing for disclosure of his or her own protected health information.  After watching Lorena or otherwise learning about John’s years of chasing the spotlight, I doubt anyone would be surprised if John signed exactly such an authorization.

While the Bobbitt case continues to horrify and mystify the masses, hopefully this blog post will clear up a little of the confusion surrounding the HIPAA Privacy Rule.  You should certainly consult appropriate legal counsel if you have any questions about these or any other privacy issues.

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