By Amber Manwaring, MBA-HC, CHC, MLS(ASCP)CM, MLT, Director of Compliance

Navigating privacy with friends and family of patients can sometimes feel tricky. Amber Manwaring offers a few helpful tips to provide the best possible care while complying with the Privacy Rule.

The Privacy Rule does not cut off all communications between you and the families and friends of patients.

As long as the patient does not object, The Privacy Rule permits you to:

  • Share needed information with family, friends, or anyone else a patient identifies as involved in their care;
  • Disclose information when needed to notify a family member or anyone responsible for the patient’s care about the patient’s location or general condition; and
  • Share the appropriate information for these purposes even when the patient is incapacitated if doing so is in the best interest of the patient.

The Privacy Rule does not stop calls or hospital visits by family, friends, clergy, or anyone else. Unless the patient objects, basic information such as phone number, room number, and general condition can: 

  • Be listed in the hospital directory;
  • Be given to people who call or visit and ask for the patient; and
  • Be given to clergy along with religious affiliation, when provided by the patient, even if the patient is not asked for by name.

Question: Suppose the patient is present and has the capacity to make health care decisions. When does HIPAA allow a health care provider to discuss the patient’s health information with the patient’s family, friends, or others involved in the patient’s care or payment for care?

Answer: If the patient is present and has the capacity to make health care decisions, a health care provider may discuss the patient’s health information with a family member, friend, or another person if the patient agrees or, when given the opportunity, does not object. A health care provider also may share information with these persons if, using professional judgment, they decide that the patient does not object. In either case, the health care provider may share or discuss only the information that the person involved needs to know about the patient’s care or payment for care.

Here are some examples:

  • 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.