Ripped from the Headlines 33


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‘John Doe’ patients sometimes force hospital staff to play detective

Lenh Vuong, a clinical social worker at Los Angeles County+USC Medical Center, checks on a former John Doe patient who was recently identified. (Heidi de Marco/KHN) (Photo: Heidi de Marco)

By SUSAN ABRAM and HEIDI DE MARCO

Palm Springs Desert Sun

The 50-something man with a shaved head and brown eyes was unresponsive when the paramedics wheeled him into the emergency room. His pockets were empty: no wallet, no cellphone, not a single scrap of paper that might reveal his identity to the nurses and doctors working to save his life. His body lacked any distinguishing scars or tattoos.


Almost two years after he was hit by a car on busy Santa Monica Boulevard in January 2017 and transported to Los Angeles County+USC Medical Center with a devastating brain injury, no one had come looking for him or reported him missing. The man died in the hospital, still a John Doe.


Hospital staffs sometimes must play detective when an unidentified patient arrives for care. Establishing identity helps avoid the treatment risks that come with not knowing a patient’s medical history. And they strive to find next of kin to help make medical decisions.

“We’re looking for a surrogate decision-maker, a person who can help us,” said Jan Crary, supervising clinical social worker at L.A. County+USC, whose team is frequently called on to identify unidentified patients.


The hospital also needs a name to collect payment from private insurance or government health programs such as Medicaid or Medicare.


But federal privacy laws can make uncovering a patient’s identity challenging for staff members at hospitals nationwide.


Read the full story here.

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