ICBioethics Blog 

HIV-positive Charlie Sheen Reinvigorates Health Care’s Privacy/Confidentiality Discussion

Written by:  Leah Jeunnette, Ph.D.(c)

Last month, Charlie Sheen announced on the Today Show, that he has been HIV-positive for 4 years. Not surprisingly, his widely publicized history of addictions and his sexual habits have led to speculation and concern regarding who has been exposed to HIV as a result of his behavior, and the chatter will go on and on.

But what about the healthcare workers who will be involved in his care going forward? What sorts of issues will they be facing?

Fortunately, being HIV-positive is no longer the same medical death sentence that it was back in the 1980s. Today, many patients who are willing to follow medical protocols can lead long and productive lives. As far as we know now, HIV will eventually develop into AIDs, but patients’ quality of life and number of intervening years is radically different from what many patients faced 30 years ago. However, any HIV-positive individuals do need to be diagnosed and put on a drug cocktail as quickly as possible in order to suppress the disease and reduce the symptoms. That is where some of the disagreement comes in – how to protect some individuals by getting them the necessary information about having been exposed and getting them tested and treated, while protecting the confidentiality of all parties involved. So although some of the ravages of this disease are now better mitigated medically, concerns regarding confidentiality and patient safety are still a major part of the problematic HIV issue.

Sometimes all that is needed is a public story to remind organizations that healthcare professionals need ongoing training to handle these complex situations. All healthcare professionals should be familiar with HIPAA, and protecting patient confidentiality and privacy should be high on their list of priorities. However, that is seldom simple, rarely self-explanatory: many states, including Pennsylvania, have laws that require healthcare professionals to report a HIV-positive diagnosis to the health department, who in turn may be required to notify anyone who was exposed to the disease. Healthcare professionals may be confused and struggle with what, as well as how, to disclose such difficult information properly, or with a sense of conflicting loyalties to their duty and their patients.

So what can healthcare organizations and professionals take away from Sheen’s sad and very public revelation? Few will have such a famous patient who makes the news; yet, all patients, whether celebrities or unknowns, deserve to be treated equally, fairly, compassionately, and effectively. And their care providers should be protected, as well. Healthcare professionals should be prepared, i.e., trained and periodically refreshed on the ethical and legal aspects as well as the organizational guidelines, rules, and procedures for tough issues like this one.

EthAssist® addresses timely topics like HIV, confidentiality, disclosure, patient protection, professional integrity, patient safety, and patient rights. It provides on-demand training on many topics that healthcare professionals face in difficult circumstances. Is your organization prepared to adequately provide this type of training?

Mitch Gennuso