Is It Okay to Use a Patient's Name in Your Medical School Admissions Essays?

HIPAA regulations around using a patient’s name

By: Ryan Kelly

Like a good pre-med, you’ve racked your brain for all of your best stories - meaningful patient interactions, successful leadership roles, service activities, etc. - and now you’re ready to write.

You start your personal statement with a story about helping a homeless veteran patient find housing. It’s a great story that really shows your impact on others. As you write, you keep referring to him as “the homeless veteran,” and it’s getting a little repetitive. It also makes him sound like a writing device, rather than a real person.

You know his name was Karl, but you’re worried about using his name due to patient confidentiality. You also remember signing something at the VA clinic about upholding HIPAA.

What do you do? Do you use his real name? A fake name? Just play it safe and call him “the homeless veteran?”

Nearly every pre-med faces this question, and it’s a legit one. You don’t want to present yourself as unprofessional and risk your whole application as a result. But still, it’d be great if you could just call him Karl, right?

Maybe you should just play it safe. Is it really worth using a name?

It’s hard to say for sure. But every year, Passport Admissions helps countless students get into medical school, and the vast majority of them use character names in their essays. So we can say with near certainty that it won’t jeopardize your application.

The Dangers of Using a Patient’s Real Name in Your Medical School Essays

Let’s start by examining the HIPAA rules, to put your mind at ease a bit. This excerpt is taken from https://www.hhs.gov/hipaa.

Protected Health Information. The Privacy Rule protects all "individually identifiable health information" held or transmitted by a covered entity or its business associate, in any form or media, whether electronic, paper, or oral.

“Individually identifiable health information” is information, including demographic data, that relates to:

  • the individual’s past, present or future physical or mental health or condition,

  • the provision of health care to the individual, or

  • the past, present, or future payment for the provision of health care to the individual,

and that identifies the individual or for which there is a reasonable basis to believe it can be used to identify the individual. Individually identifiable health information includes many common identifiers (e.g., name, address, birth date, Social Security Number).

So, you’re not violating HIPAA if you use a phony name and avoid divulging any of these key identifiers. But wait - would you need to change your description of Karl’s health issues or treatment?

Nope - just change his name - he’s not the only homeless veteran in your city with PTSD, so you’re not running any risks of revealing his identity. Even in rare instances when there are unusual symptoms, conditions, circumstances, you’re still safe.

And yes, it’s okay to use a name that would be typical for the region or patient population; using “Miguel” in Tijuana might seem stereotypical, but it’s likely to make the story more believable.

The Two Best Ways to Handle Patient Names in Your Medical School Essays

We know you like to be extra safe, so here are the two best ways of using character names:

1. Put the fake name in quotes the first time you use it, then drop the quotes afterwards. This will help the reader understand that it’s made-up.

“Margery” was the first patient I met in hospice, and she left a lasting impression...  

2. Use the person’s title (Mr./Mrs./Ms., etc) and the capital letter of his or her last name. This might sound like a character in a Kafka novel, but it’ll be anonymous.

“Mr. R was a frequent patient at our free clinic, often complaining of chest pains and shortness of breath…”

Both of these are better than alternatives, like pausing the narrative completely to explain that it’s a false name or giving the person a generic identifier. Perhaps the worst offense we’ve seen is a student referring to a patient as “colon cancer man” (sounds like the most unfortunate superhero in history). “The homeless veteran” is better, certainly, but it still feels impersonal.

The truth is that people love characters, and they want to feel like they’re reading about real people in real situations. Think about how much harder it would be to connect to your favorite characters without their names.

Man, I sure love “wizard boy.” I can’t wait for his next book.

It was so cool when the “blonde-haired queen” rode her dragon to battle.

Just doesn’t feel the same as Harry and Daenerys, does it?

It’s also much more convenient for you as a writer to be able to callback to characters quickly in a way that readers will instantly recognize. You’re saving precious characters while also creating a more personal narrative.

So, if you can get past your initial fears surrounding confidentiality, the pros of using character names definitely outweigh the cons. Just be wise with your decisions and presentation, and you’ll be in the clear.

If your essays and stories are like your children, as some writers claim, then we invite you to have a blast when naming your characters.

Want some inspiration? https://www.name-generator.org.uk/character/

Best of luck with your amazing character-driven stories!