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HIPAA rules clarified to ease emergency care
Information given ‘as necessary'
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the federal Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights issued a special bulletin regarding "HIPAA Privacy and Disclosures in Emergency Situations."
The bulletin was issued, officials said, to emphasize how the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) privacy rule allows patient information to be shared to assist in disaster relief efforts and to assist patients in receiving needed care.
Providers and health plans covered by the HIPAA privacy rule can share patient information in all the following scenarios, the bulletin explains.
• Treatment: Health care providers can share patient information as necessary to provide treatment.
"Treatment" includes sharing information with other providers (including hospitals and clinics), referring patients for treatment (including linking patients with available providers in areas where the patients have relocated), and coordinating patient care with others (such as emergency relief workers or others that can help find patients appropriate health services).
• Notification: Health care providers can share patient information as necessary to identify, locate, and notify family members, guardians, or anyone else responsible for the individual's care, of the individual's location, general condition, or death.
The health care provider should get verbal permission from individuals when possible, but if the individual is incapacitated or not available, providers may share information for these purposes if, in their professional judgment, doing so is in the patient's best interest.
When necessary, the bulletin goes on to explain, the hospital may notify the police, the press, or the public at large to the extent necessary to help locate, identify, or otherwise notify family members and others as to the location and general condition of their loved ones.
When a health care provider is sharing information with disaster relief organizations that, like the American Red Cross, are authorized by law or by their charters to assist in disaster relief efforts, it is not necessary to get a patient's permission to share the information if doing so would interfere with the organization's ability to respond to the emergency.
• Imminent danger.
Providers can share patient information with anyone as necessary to prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat to the health and safety of a person or the public — consistent with applicable law and the provider's standards of ethical conduct.
• Facility directory.
Health care facilities maintaining a directory of patients can tell people who call or ask about individuals whether the person is at the facility, as well as his or her general condition and location in the facility.
The bulletin points out that, of course, the HIPAA privacy rule does not apply to disclosures if they are not made by entities covered by the privacy rule. For instance, the rule does not restrict the American Red Cross from sharing patient information.