Caregiving at a Distance
July 17, 2012 10:20 AM   Subscribe

How can I get information about my mom's medical condition when I live in another state?

My 71-year-old mom is in a Kaiser hospital in Northern California with a sudden health crisis involving low blood sodium resulting in confusion and disorientation.

Her long-term partner is a difficult person at the best of times, and especially now that the person who is her whole world is sick. I'm frustrated because I don't feel that I'm getting complete and accurate information about my mom's condition via her partner. Her partner is also trying to discourage me from visiting for reasons that IMO have more to do with her own introversion / misanthropy than with my mom's best interests.

My mom's partner is her medical decision-maker (they've filled out power of attorney and advance directives, though they're not domestic partners). I'm not trying to challenge that. I'm just trying to get accurate information and access to see my mom.

My questions are: Without having filled out a specific form to that effect, can I get information about my mom's condition? If so, what's the best way to go about doing that?

I hope that this is a transient situation and that my mom will be compos mentis again soon. What can she and I and her partner and the rest of the family do to help minimize friction now and during the inevitable future crises?
posted by ottereroticist to Human Relations (8 answers total)
I'm not sure how much information you can get from the medical staff there without having any paperwork on file, but you can try to call and speak with one of her doctors. Honestly, I'd try to drop everything and go visit if you can manage it, because once your mom is no longer disoriented, she can make note in her files at the hospital and with her primary doctor that her health info can be released to you. (That said, I have been able to call the hospital when my dad was sick and just state my name and that I'm calling about my father [dadsname], and since our last names are the same the nurses gave me an update. YMMV.)
posted by bedhead at 10:26 AM on July 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

Call admissions, find out her room, call the nurse's station on that floor, get your mom's nurse on the line, tell her you're her son and ask for an update. Then ask them to page your mom's doctor and talk to the doctor. I've been dealing with hospitals on a regular basis over the last three years and no one has ever asked me questions after my telling them I'm immediate family.
posted by griphus at 10:26 AM on July 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

griphus is right, this should work in most places, but some hospitals do have more stringent protocols. I've dealt with one where the main decision maker had to create a password that other family members would use to get the information when they called. Hopefully this place won't be that strict. Hyponatremia is usually pretty straightforward to correct and I would expect her to be back to her usual mental status within a couple of days at the most, if that's her only issue.

I think the best way to minimize tension for the future would be to sit down with both your mom and her partner and ideally other family members once she's back to 100% and ask her who she would want to have access to the medical information if she were ill again, and what she would like in regards to visits. If everyone knows what your mom wants and has heard it directly from her, it will be hard for her partner to argue about this later. Good for her for having a power of attorney and advance directives, btw.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 10:43 AM on July 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

In this situation, what griphus suggests may work, but I think it's a bit of a grey area with respect to HIPAA, and some care providers and hospitals may take the following stance: unless stated otherwise on paper, if someone has an assigned and available decision-maker ("personal representative"), that decision-maker also has control over private health information, and to whom it is disseminated. Unless you are on frankly bad terms with her partner, the best course of action might be to have her connect you directly with your mom's nurses/doctors. Otherwise, also on preview, what t+b said.
posted by drpynchon at 10:56 AM on July 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

...tell her you're her son...

(NB: If you are her daughter, you may want to tell them that, instead.)
posted by griphus at 11:00 AM on July 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Whenever my mom goes to the hospital, I do exactly what griphus describes (my mom is in PA) and I haven't had an issue. I've also not had issues speaking with any of her doctors. But I know that my name is on my mom's chart as POA, so that might be why.

If all else fails, ask the hospital, as well as the office staff of your mom's key physicians, whether there is a HIPAA disclosure form you can keep on file or that you can fax/email over in case of an emergency. If so, ask them for guidance on how to fill it out (especially so that it doesn't expire in a couple of months). Explain the situation with the partner. Before you fill anything out, check with your mom (once she feels better) to see if she is willing to sign the forms.
posted by Currer Belfry at 11:00 AM on July 17, 2012

I am sorry, this sounds like a difficult situation. I will echo treehorn+bunny and drpynchon; your best option is to deal directly with your mom's partner. If she is currently acting as your mother's medical decision maker (ie, your mom is too confused), she can authorize the medical team to speak to you directly.

Healthcare professionals need to be very careful about giving out information to unknown third parties, as HIPAA violations carry some significant fines. (and of course, because it IS important to protect people's privacy). Trying to do an end run around this by calling nursing stations/office staff/etc puts people in a difficult ethical situation.

You also mention wanting access to see your mother. I think it would be a lot harder for your mother's partner to block visitation. If possible, I'd encourage you to visit. If she is still hospitalized, try to be at her bedside when her medical team rounds. If you and her partner are able to hear relevant information at the same time there is less chance of confusion/misunderstanings (and may help her feel that you are both on the same side).
posted by maryrussell at 11:57 AM on July 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was in a similar situation when my mom was in the hospital for cancer. Her sister, my aunt, did not want to "trouble me" by giving me the information I was straight up asking for, nor did she see a reason for me to visit. Luckily I did get my mom's nurse to give me the info on my mom's condition, which turned out to be dire -- as above, I just called and I identified myself as her daughter -- and I was able to see my mom before she died. Here's the question I asked the nurse: "If this were your mom, would you come visit?"
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 6:28 PM on July 17, 2012

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