HHS Issues Guidance on Disclosing Health Information During Crisis Situations

Oct. 30, 2017
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) released new guidance on when and how healthcare providers can share a patient’s health information with family members, friends, and legal personal representatives when that patient may be in crisis and incapacitated, such as during an opioid overdose.

Last week, President Donald Trump issued a call to action that led to the declaration of a nationwide public health emergency regarding the opioid crisis. Following that announcement, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) released new guidance on when and how healthcare providers can share a patient’s health information with family members, friends, and legal personal representatives when that patient may be in crisis and incapacitated, such as during an opioid overdose.

Current Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) regulations allow healthcare providers to share information with a patient’s loved ones in certain emergency or dangerous situations. 

HHS OCR issued guidance, in the form of a pdf document that can be accessed here, outline how HIPAA allows doctors to respond to the opioid crisis. HIPAA allows healthcare professionals to disclose some health information without a patient’s permission under certain circumstances, including sharing health information with family and close friends who are involved in care of the patient if the provider determines that doing so is in the best interests of an incapacitated or unconscious patient, and the information shared is directly related to the family or friend’s involvement in the patient’s health care or payment of care.

According to the HHS OCR guidance, healthcare professionals also can disclose some health information without a patient’s consent in order to inform persons in a position to prevent or lesson a serious and imminent threat to a patient’s health or safety. “For example, a doctor whose patient has overdosed on opioids is presumed to have complied with HIPAA if the doctor informs family, friends, or caregivers of the opioid abuse after determining, based on the facts and circumstances, that the patient poses a serious and imminent threat to his or her health through continued opioid abuse upon discharge,” the HHS OCR officials stated.

Misunderstandings about HIPAA can create obstacles to family support that is crucial to the proper care and treatment of people experiencing a crisis situation, such as an opioid overdose.  It is critical for healthcare providers to understand when and how they can share information with patients’ family members and friends without violating the HIPAA Privacy Rule. 

It is important to note that state or other federal privacy laws may also apply, the agency stated.

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