Verbal OKs for AIDS tests are for doctors only

With a new state law that requires health care providers to report cases of HIV infection by name to county health departments, confusion about whether patients need to provide written consent when screened for the virus has AIDS activists and others concerned about privacy risks.

Two weeks ago, a city health official erroneously told reporters that San Francisco was going to allow city-run medical clinics to administer the test with only verbal consent, the head of The City’s AIDS programs told a Board of Supervisors committee on Monday. However, doctors — and only doctors — at San Francisco General Hospital are allowed to screen for the virus with just verbal approval, James Loyce, the director of AIDS programs for San Francisco’s Department of Public Health, told The Examiner.

Loyce had come before the supervisors City Operations and Neighborhood Services Committee to comment on an ordinance authored by Supervisor Fiona Ma that would “encourage” the hospital to obtain written consent.

According to The City’s legal counsel, state law exempts doctors from getting the written approval — but not nurses or others who may be administering the test. Loyce insisted that an accountability measure was in place, because doctors would be required to put in writing that they had a discussion that secured patient consent.

Tamara Lange, a senior staff attorney at the San Francisco office of the American Civil Liberties Union, said verbal consent would not ensure that the patient made an informed decision.

“With writtenconsent, individuals can see, in writing, what their options are,” Lange said. She added that patients should also be told that there are places where the test can be taken “anonymously,” where no patient information is required, as opposed to “confidentially” where a patient has to provide their name, but is promised privacy protections.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is currently considering adopting a verbal consent system.

beslinger@examiner.com

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