In light of the Ebola situation, the Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS) Office of Civil Rights (OCR) has issued a bulletin to healthcare providers and other HIPAA-covered entities and their business associates on sharing patient information during an emergency situation.
The bulletin is a reminder to those entities that protections derived from the privacy rule are not to be set aside during an emergency. However, OCR notes there are situations in this case that the disclosure of information may be made without the patient's permission.
These exceptions to the rule during an emergency involve providers sharing information on a patient for the coordination and management of care; sharing information with a public health authority such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); sharing information with the patient's family and others involved with their care; and if the patient is within imminent danger.
There is also disclosure on sharing with the media. OCR states that minimal information on the patient can be shared with the media if the patient has given their approval or if the patient is incapacitated, then if that information is in the public interest. In all, OCR notes the covered entity must disclose information, which is the "minimum necessary."
Like other widely-covered media events in healthcare, the Ebola crisis has become a potential trap for HIPAA violations. In Nebraska, two workers at a hospital were fired for accessing a patient's record illegally because that patient had Ebola.