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Commentary COVID-19 in Maryland Health Care

Opinion: Why Patient Rights Matter in a Pandemic

Patient Rights
Unsplash.com photo by Myriam Zilles.

Our dedicated health care workers in Maryland are facing extraordinary challenges in the current pandemic crisis, working long hours under extremely difficult conditions. This is a challenging and difficult time for patients, as well.

In order to limit the spread of COVID-19, hospital patients are actively discouraged from having family members or friends accompany them for emotional support. This means that patients must be their own health care advocates, and they must be informed consumers of health care. Ensuring engagement of all patients in their health care has never been more important.

In the 2019 legislative session, the Maryland General Assembly unanimously passed the Hospital Patient’s Bill of Rights, and the bill was signed into law by Gov. Larry Hogan. The purpose of the law is to “promote the health, safety and well-being of patients and to foster better communication between patients and health care providers in hospitals …”

The law was the result of collaboration among 24 advocacy groups, the Maryland Nurses Association and the Maryland Hospital Association. The law mandates the provision of a written copy of 24 patient rights to all hospital patients whether they are an inpatient, an outpatient or an emergency services patient.

These basic rights include treatment without discrimination, informed consent, provision of aids to patients with disabilities, privacy and confidentiality, explanation of hospital charges and other vital information for patients. These rights help to protect patients from health care inequities or implicit bias in treatment.

The law went into effect Oct. 1, 2019, well before the pandemic began impacting our hospitals and patients, yet compliance remains a problem.

Ten hospitals across the state have incorrectly posted patient rights on their websites, in some cases deleting the right to be treated without discrimination, the right to pain assessment and treatment, information on aids for patients with disabilities, and others. Moreover, Marylanders for Patient Rights has received numerous reports from patients of the failure of hospitals to provide a copy of patient rights, as required by law. Most egregiously, an advocate for people with disabilities brought his own copy of the law to his local hospital where it was roundly rejected by hospital staff.

By contrast, hospitals such as Frederick Health Hospital and Johns Hopkins Hospital have embraced the importance of patient rights and have been highly effective in communicating rights to patients. These hospitals acknowledge that informed and engaged patients result in improved outcomes, and they are providing leadership in patient care and education.

Why is there a lack of uniform implementation among hospitals of the Hospital Patient’s Bill of Rights law? One reason is that regulatory oversight by the Maryland Department of Health has been woefully inadequate.

Legislators and advocates worked hard to pass a law to protect and inform patients. Now the law needs to be implemented by the Maryland Department of Health.

— ANNA PALMISANO

The writer is a microbiologist and director of Marylanders for Patient Rights.