In February 2020, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) published a bulletin outlining when and how patient’s protected health information (PHI) can be shared in the case of an outbreak of infectious disease, while still adhering to HIPAA compliance guidelines.
The HIPAA Privacy Rules still protects patients’ PHI, but it also needs to ensure necessary information is available to treat a patient AND to protect the nation’s public health. Most of the information in the bulletin is a reminder of current HIPAA elements that apply today. However, the Coronavirus outbreak make these components more applicable at this time, and a reminder to staff may be helpful.
- Treatment As always, covered entities (CE’s) may disclose, without a patient’s authorization, protected health information (PHI) about the patient as necessary to treat the patient or to treat a different patient. Treatment includes the coordination or management of care by health care providers and others, consultation between providers, and the referral of patients for treatment.
- Public Health Activities The HIPAA Privacy Rule recognizes the legitimate need for public health authorities and others responsible for ensuring public health and safety to have access to PHI that is necessary to carry out their public health mission. Therefore, the Privacy Rule permits covered entities to disclose needed protected health information without individual authorization:
- To a public health authority, such as the CDC, state or local health departments, that is authorized by law to collect or receive such information for the purpose of preventing or controlling disease. This would include the reporting of disease, vital events such as deaths, conducting public health surveillance, investigations, or interventions.
- Disclosures to Prevent a Serious and Imminent Threat Health care providers may 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 (such as state statutes, regulations, or case law) and the provider’s standards of ethical conduct. Providers may disclose a patient’s health information to anyone who is in a position to prevent or lesson the serious and imminent threat, including family, friends, caregivers, and law enforcement without a patient’s permission.
- To other persons at risk of contracting or spreading a disease or condition if other law, such as state law, authorizes the CE to notify such persons to prevent or control the spread of the disease, or to carry out public health interventions or investigations.)
– The covered entity should ideally get and document verbal permission from individuals, or be able to reasonably infer that the patient does not object, when possible; if the individual is incapacitated or not available, covered entities may share information for these purposes if, in their professional judgment, doing so is in the patient’s best interest.
– A health care provider may share relevant information about the patient with family, friends, or others involved in the patient’s care or payment for care, if the health care provider determines, based on professional judgment, doing so is in the best interests of the patient.
- To disaster relief organizations are authorized to assist in disaster relief efforts, for the purpose of coordinating the notification of family members or other persons involved in the patient’s care, of the patient’s location, general condition, or death. It is unnecessary to obtain a patient’s permission to share the information in this situation if doing so would interfere with the organization’s ability to respond to the emergency.
- Disclosures to the Media or Others Not Involved in the Care of the Patient/Notification If talking to the media, refer to the bulletin for more in-depth information. However, many organizations have policies, and usually assign one point person ensure proper messaging. Use caution.
- Minimum Necessary For most disclosures, a covered entity must make reasonable efforts to limit the information disclosed to that which is the “minimum necessary” to accomplish the purpose. (Minimum necessary requirements do not apply to disclosures to health care providers for treatment purposes.)
- Safeguarding Patient Information in emergency situation, covered entities must continue to implement reasonable safeguards to protect patient information against intentional or unintentional impermissible uses and disclosures. Covered entities (and their business associates) must apply the administrative, physical, and technical safeguards of the HIPAA Security Rule to electronic protected health information.
For the complete bulletin and resource, see the link below.
Office for Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services BULLETIN: HIPAA Privacy and Novel Coronavirus https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/february-2020-hipaa-and-novel-coronavirus.pdf