HIPAA Myth: Listening to Family and Friends

Recently I had a very frustrating visit with my doctor. As an educator with an expertise in HIPAA law it is difficult when I run headlong into someone who adamantly believes incorrect information. I hear this often from my clients too when they are dealing with other healthcare offices. It is not surprising. HIPAA is complex and has changed over time. Between the first proposed regulations and the publication of the final rules there were a lot of changes. Some of the early (and revoked) proposals never made it into law but stayed in people’s memories. Also, companies made HIPAA policy decisions based on laws that were never passed.

My recent frustration was because of one frequently misunderstood point. My aging mother and I share the same doctor. During my visit I tried to give my doctor information on changes I was seeing in my mother’s behavior and memory, which were especially concerning to me because my grandmother died of Alzheimer’s. The doctor told me she could not have this conversation due to HIPAA. I told her I understood she could not discuss my mother’s treatment with me, but she could listen to my observations and take them into account during her assessment. She was adamant that she could not listen to me.

People often misinterpret this issue. HIPAA does not now and never has dictated the information a healthcare provider can take in and consider for treatment. It only protects what you can do with the information you have. HIPAA is all about restricting the access, use or disclosure of someone’s health information (regardless of how you got it) to the wishes of your patient or those areas of necessity: treatment, payment, healthcare operations, and where required by other laws.

There are many options allowed to a provider in a situation where you are being given information by a friend or family member.

  1. You can say thank you and add it to your patient’s chart if you feel it is warranted.
  2. You can discuss the information being given generically. For example, “The behavior you are describing is a normal process, but if you are concerned you can visit this website for more information on Alzheimer’s.”

By shutting down my comments the doctor disregarded a valuable source of information for no reason. HIPAA law should not interfere with the treatment of a patient. That is stated in the law directly. If you find that HIPAA is directly impacting your treatment of a patient, call and get advice because you have probably run into a HIPAA Myth. As a TMC client you can call 1-888-862-6742.