When a relative on the east coast fell, and the skilled nursing facility where she lived told me that might have broken her hip or pelvis, I felt prepared.  I knew all the arrangements I needed to make as the health care representative for someone unable to manage her own care.  I placed or received twenty-nine phone calls within a few hours. 

One of these was a call from the emergency room, asking for permission to treat my relative.  When I asked in turn if she had in fact actually broken anything, I was transferred to an ER nurse.

“Sorry,” he said, “federal privacy regulations mean that we can’t give any information out over the phone.”

Keep in mind that it was the hospital that called me, not the other way around.  They were perfectly happy to take my consent to treat over the phone – but they wouldn’t tell me what was wrong. How could I make any informed decisions if I didn’t know my relative’s diagnosis, status, treatment options, etc.?

Additionally, to get to the east coast that day, I needed to leave for the airport in an hour (thanks, Arizona Shuttle, for that 2:30 a.m. shuttle bus!) and didn’t want to do that if my relative just had bruises, but no broken bones. 

The nurse tried to help, while not providing any medical information:  “I’d jump on that plane, if I were you,” he said, leaving me to wonder if my relative’s injuries were even worse than a broken hip or pelvis.

What can you do if faced with a similar situation yourself?

First, before any emergencies arise, make sure that the necessary paperwork has been completed.  An advance directive gives one or more people the right to make medical decisions on the behalf of someone else, if that individual is unable to make decisions independently.

Second, make sure that the hospital has a copy of this document.  If your relative lives in assisted living, nursing, or skilled nursing, that care facility should have a copy on file; you can ask that they fax it to the hospital.  Otherwise, fax a copy yourself.

Third, ask how they verify identity when people show up in person, and offer to meet those requirements via fax.  For example, if they want a driver’s license or a signature, offer to fax them yours. When you call later, you could read them your driver’s license number, and they could check it against the one you faxed. Some hospitals may allow you to set up a telephone password.

Interestingly, when I did arrive in person twelve hours later, no one asked for any identification at all as I made decisions on my relative’s behalf.