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Ever heard of HIPAA?

If you’re writing a medical hero or heroine, you should have heard of it.

Also, if you’ve been to the doctor’s office in the past umpteen years, you have heard it.  You just might not realize that is what it is.

In 1996, HIPAA, also known as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, was endorsed by Congress.

Why does this matter when writing a doctor or nurse? Because your doctor or nurse should have a basic understanding of it. You don’t need to go throwing that term in there, because your readers might not understand it.

But your medical readers, and there are a lot of us, will laugh or roll our eyes or get downright irritated when you trample all over confidentiality… because that is what this is about.


Confidentiality has always mattered to an ethical nurse or doctor, but after HIPAA came into being, it got more important. Talking about a patient in the cafeteria, where other people can hear you can lead to serious trouble.  Looking through records you have no business accessing can get you fired. (Link)

Facebooking about a patient can lead to big trouble.  Nurses get fired over this. (Link)

And while this case here – the woman took photos for pete’s sake – look at what is under the header…referred to the FBI.(Link) That FBI thing should clue you in… confidentiality is no joking matter.

I cannot tell you how many books I’ve read where the hero or heroine is somehow connected to the medical field…a doctor, nurse, EMT, etc and will be in the cafeteria, talking about Ms. Shaw and her hip, in the elevator, talking about cranky old Mr. Roberts and his dialysis, etc, etc.

Yes, the staff will talkBut…the smart ones, who value their jobs, aren’t going to do it in public where anybody but staff can hear.

And it shouldn’t be gossipy.  Say a nurse in ICU hears you’ve got a hunky cop on the med-surg floor.  She comes up and wants details… yes, this is totally believable, right?

Do you know that if you are overheard discussing those details, you can get fired?

Basically, you share only the necessary information with the necessary people.

So if you’re overheard discussing patients at yoga…in the supermarket…with your BFF…that’s a no.

You might think this is too restrictive to your story, but if you want to make your medical character more believable, then you can find a way to work it.


  • No gossiping, especially not in public spaces
  • You can’t have the hero/heroine pull the doctor or nurse aside for info on a patient.  Unless that patient has given permission, and the staff should check, that doctor/nurse is risking his license, his money, possibly his freedom by giving out those details so easily.
  • The same goes goes if a character out of the blue asks the doctor/nurse for info…unless that doctor/nurse knows the patient has okay’d that release of information, they aren’t going to give it.  They like having their license, the money from the job…and yeah, not being investigated, thrown in jail, etc, etc.
  • If your nurse/doctor goes digging for personal data, s/he’s doing it at the risk of losing his/her job, possibly her license. Since many records have gone digital, this can be tracked…and it often is.
  • Only the minimum amount of information needed for patient care is accessed.  Again, say I’m working a med-surg (medical-surgical) floor and there’s a patient in ICU, I can’t go flipping through their file.  I have no business doing it. Again, that information can be tracked.
  • Violations can and do lead to fines and/or jail time, so this is serious shit. Nurses/doctors/CNAs/Aides they all understand this…we don’t take it lightly, neither should your characters.