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The 374th Medical Group at Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo has seen a rise in patients using personal email and social media to contact their medical providers.
The 374th Medical Group at Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo has seen a rise in patients using personal email and social media to contact their medical providers. (Erica Earl/Stars and Stripes)

YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Some medical group patients at the home of U.S. Forces Japan in western Tokyo have been conveying personal health information to their care providers via social media and personal email, a practice the group warns may be counterproductive.

Sending personal health data by email or Facebook messages, for example, is prohibited under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, the 374th Medical Group said Thursday in a Facebook post.

Plus, information that comes that way to the health care providers cannot be entered into an individual’s health records, according to the medical group.

“Our primary goal is to ensure the health and safety of all of our patients,” said the medical group’s post. “Information relayed through non-authorized methods may not get entered into your personal health record, potentially jeopardizing your health.”

An air base spokesman declined to specify what types of questions people have been asking or whether those questions concerned the coronavirus. A medical group representative was not available for an interview, according to spokesman 1st Lt. Stuart Thrift.

HIPAA is the federal law that protects sensitive patient health information from disclosure without the patient’s consent, according to hippajournal.com.

Once a physician engages with a patient on a non-official online channel, privacy issues could arise in discussing specific medical concerns on that platform, according to the website.

Elsewhere, Naval Hospital Okinawa at the Marine Corps’ Camp Foster has seen an increase in patient inquiries about the coronavirus, but has not received many inquiries via personal email or social media, hospital spokesman Joseph Andes said Friday.

“Most of the queries and the calls we get from the general public are COVID-19 related,” he said. COVID-19 is a respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus.

Naval Hospital Okinawa’s COVID Care Line, a hotline designed specifically to answer patient’s questions and concerns about the coronavirus, receives about 30 calls per day, but sometimes gets as many as 70, he said.

“These numbers usually ebb and flow in relation to current COVID-19 conditions on the island,” Andes said. “It’s also great for patients because it keeps our non-COVID related phone lines from getting tied up.”

Patients at Yokota can get information from their providers through appointment and clinic hotlines, a visit to the emergency room if necessary or by participating in question and answer sessions on official Facebook pages, Thrift said.

Yokota also has a medical group hotline that’s not limited to COVID-19 questions but serves as a platform for patients asking questions related to the pandemic.

Patients may also use Secure Messaging, a non-emergency medical advice line that’s accessible at www.tricareonline.com.

Yokosuka Naval Base, homeport south of Tokyo for the U.S. 7th Fleet, has not reported a pattern of patients reaching out to care providers by personal email or social media, said Erika Figueroa, a spokeswoman for the naval hospital there. But she said she could see how that might happen.

“Patients deserve transparency and access to information,” she told Stars and Stripes by phone Thursday. “But they need to do so through the appropriate channels.”

earl.erica@stripes.com Twitter: @ThisEarlGirl

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