HHS guidance emphasizes what can be divulged

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has issued new guidance for providers on talking about patients' health information with and in the presence of other parties — with an emphasis on what can be discussed.

Even though HIPAA requires health care providers to protect patient privacy, providers are permitted, in most circumstances, to communicate with the patient's family, friends, or others involved in their care or payment for care.

The guidance is intended to clarify HIPAA privacy requirements so that health care providers don't unnecessarily withhold information from those who are permitted to have it.

Among examples discussed in "A Health Care Provider's Guide to the HIPAA Privacy Rule: Communicating with a Patient's Family, Friends, or Others Involved in the Patient's Care," released in September 2008 by the HHS Office of Civil Rights, are the following examples of permitted discussions of health information:

  • An emergency room doctor may discuss a patient's treatment in front of the patient's friend if the patient asks that her friend come into the treatment room.
  • A doctor's office may discuss a patient's bill with the patient's adult daughter who is with the patient at the patient's medical appointment and has questions about the charges.
  • A doctor may discuss the drugs a patient needs to take with the patient's health aide who has accompanied the patient to a medical appointment.
  • A doctor may give information about a patient's mobility limitations to the patient's sister who is driving the patient home from the hospital.
  • A nurse may discuss a patient's health status with the patient's brother if she informs the patient she is going to do so and the patient does not object.

["A Health Care Provider's Guide to the HIPAA Privacy Rule" is available free for download at www.hhs.gov/ocr/hipaa/provider_ffg.pdf.]