Dont Ask Patients for Donations, ACP Says

Patients sometimes want to give back to their physician or hospital. In recent years, the practice of soliciting donations from these patients has grown into structured fundraising initiatives at some healthcare organizations. Some employers mandate clinicians solicit donations, while other doctors participate voluntarily.

But the nation’s second-largest physician group is cautioning its members not to ask their patients for donations to the clinician’s workplace.  

“In recent decades, more physician practices have become part of large health systems: these arrangements can offer benefits to care but can also lead to interference in the patient–physician relationship and challenges to the physician’s ethical responsibilities to patients,” said Omar T. Atiq, MD, president of the American College of Physicians (ACP).

Grateful patient fundraising (GPF) is largely based on models of charitable giving outside of healthcare and is relatively new to the industry. Simply defined, it is the solicitation of donations by doctors from current and former patients. Funds may be used for operating costs, clinical research, equipment upgrades, or facility improvements.

In a newly published position paper, the ACP, which represents roughly 161,000 physicians, is clear that clinicians should not try to convert their patients into donors.

“Physicians who directly solicit funds from their own patients do risk interfering with the physician–patient relationship, which is supposed to be based on the patient’s best interests, not the physicians’ interests,” said Stacey A. Tovino, JD, PhD, director of Healthcare Law Programs at The University of Oklahoma College of Law in Norman.

Once involved in fundraising, patients may also develop an unrealistic expectation of what kind of care they should receive, according to the ACP.

Another pitfall clinicians may fall into is the HIPAA Privacy Rule. In 2013, HIPAA was expanded to allow hospital fundraisers to access privileged health information, including demographic, health insurance, treating clinician, and data on outcomes. Atiq said since then, electronic health records have been used as tools to aide fundraising efforts. For instance, some healthcare organizations have embedded a feature inside EHRs to allow physicians to flag development officers when a patient or family member might be a potential donor. 

Patients may be unaware that hospital fundraising departments have access to their electronic health records, or that they have the right to opt out of fundraising solicitations.

“Physicians should not use or reveal patient information for fundraising,” Atiq said. “Even acknowledging that a person is under one’s care can make it possible for protected health information to be revealed.”

Data-mining EHRs may be legal, Tovino said, but it hugs a fine ethical line.

“A patient may not expect that their information will be used for these purposes and may not know how to opt out of having their information used in these ways,” Tovino said.

A clinician’s employment contract, whether it be a full-time position or for specific admitting privileges, may make it hard for them to push back against expectations to ask patients for money or screen for donors. Metrics or expectations to approach potential donors create ethical snares for clinicians — and it pits them between their patient and place of employment.

“GPF does raise ethical concerns, including those surrounding confidentiality and privacy, and whether physicians are being remunerated or evaluated based on their participation,” Tovino said. Asked how doctors can avoid being involved in GPF, Atiq referred to the ACP ethics manual, which separates clinicians from fundraising.

“Redirecting the patient to discuss donations with institutional administrators provides the appropriate venue and firewall,” he said.

An author of the ACP paper reports a paid position on the board of the Government Employees Health Association.

Ann Intern Med. Published online September 26, 2023. Full text

Karen Veazey is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer covering health news.

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