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Hospital releases phone numbers for survey

St. Joseph's Hospital and Health Center in Dickinson is providing patient names and phone numbers to a survey company and hospital officials say the practice is legal.

Recent hospital patients may be receiving Baltimore-based phone calls from HealthStream Research, a survey company contracted by Catholic Health Initiatives, St. Joseph's parent company and hospital officials say failure to do so could mean a reduction in funding.

Though most patient health records are kept highly confidential by Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA laws, dissemination of patient names, home and cell phone numbers for betterment of hospital services is not protected.

"It is a permissible use of their information in order to improve the quality of care that is delivered to patients," said Paulette Thomas, in-house council for CHI.

Such surveys can bring critical access hospitals, such as St. Joseph's, more federal funding.

"There is a strong financial incentive for hospitals to do this survey," said Allen Acton, senior consultant for HealthStream.

While Critical Access Hospitals, like St. Joseph's, can voluntarily participate in Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems, or HCAHPS, they are strongly encouraged to do so, said Reed Reyman, president and chief executive officer of St. Joseph's.

"We can't do it ourselves, it's too overwhelming and plus CMS (Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services) frowns on us doing it ourselves," Reyman said.

Failure to participate could result in a 2 percent reduction in Medicare and Medicaid returns, Reyman said.

"CMS has said that hospitals that participate in this survey are eligible to receive a larger proportion of their annual payment update from Medicare than if they do not," Acton said.

Developed out of a partnership between CMS and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, HCAHPS aim at providing a standardized method of data collection for measuring patients' views on their hospital care, according to the HCAHPS Web site.

"The CHI requirement comes in because quality is one of the CHI core strategies and something we work at continually," said Mary Elise Biegert, director of communication services for CHI.

In fine print, the notice of privacy practices outline just what patient information can be used for.

"We may use and disclose your health information for routine facility operations, such as business planning and development, quality review of services provided ... patient satisfaction survey organizations, external quality assurance and peer review organizations ... ," according to St. Joseph's privacy pamphlet.

Thomas said the HIPAA privacy rule only requires notice of privacy practices be provided to patients in writing, unless limited means of communication exist.

All patients entering St. Joseph's are to be provided a printed copy of the notice of privacy practices and the notices also hang on hospital walls, Reyman said.

"I don't think most of the general public reads them," Thomas said. "The number of uses of a person's health information far exceeds what you can even put in text."

Hospitals are not required to verbally explain the privacy process to patients, Biegert said.

HealthStream conducts health care research for about 400 hospitals across the country, Acton said.

Information provided to HealthStream is transmitted electronically once a week, he said.

Acton said CHI sends all their data to a warehouse in Colorado. The warehouse then uploads a file of all patients to HealthStream Research, Acton said.

"We, as an authorized vendor, then sample the data provided to us in order to comply with the sampling plan St. Joe's asks us to do," Acton said.

Acton said CMS requires a minimum of 300 surveys per year, adding St. Joseph's has HealthStream conduct a higher number.

Patients are usually identified by name, phone number and area of treatment, Acton said.

While generally all patients contact information is transmitted through the process, those with sensitive diagnoses such as psychiatric problems are excluded from the process, Acton said.

Patients in each department receive a different survey, whether he or she received services in radiology or the emergency room.

Survey results are then available through

Patients can opt out of the survey by filling out paperwork with the hospital's corporate responsibility officer.

"I think people are so used to this now ... I actually have people that come in and say, 'Hey, I was here and I didn't get called this time,' and they actually like to do the survey," Reyman said.