NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


March 30, 2006

Daily in emergency departments and inpatient trauma services, and sporadically in other departments, police officers request permission to interview patients who may have experienced, witnessed or perpetrated crimes ranging from motor vehicle crashes to homicides, says the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

Decision making by both clinicians and police is unstructured, ad hoc and potentially susceptible to adverse outcomes that might be preventable with appropriate guidance, says JAMA.

JAMA recommends the following five principles to help guide physicians responding to police interview requests:

  • Patients judged by physicians to have the capacity to make medical decisions should decide for themselves whether to speak with police, and when possible, inform police of their decision directly, rather than through intermediaries.
  • Except when competent patients knowingly decide to accept the risk of harm, police interviews should not interfere with patient care or risk significant physical or mental harm to patients.
  • Hospital staff must take care to comply with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), or other privacy laws, and hospital policies regarding release of information about patients.
  • Clinicians observing an interview should make clear to patients that they are not part of the investigation team and are present only to safeguard patients' medical status.
  • Hospitals should be encouraged to form committees or working groups to develop and oversee local guidelines.

Police interviews of hospital patients are a heretofore relatively ignored phenomenon with significant potential clinical, legal and societal consequences. Research is needed on the incidence, outcomes, and specific risks of these interviews, with a goal of developing evidence-based guidelines for both physicians and police, says JAMA.

Source: Paul M. Jones, Paul S. Appelbaum and David M. Siegel, "Law Enforcement Interviews of Hospital Patients," Journal of the American Medical Association, February 15, 2006.

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