You Took Your Injured Friend to the ED. He’s Unconscious. He Has No Relatives. His Doctors Won’t Tell You Anything. What Can You Do?

This is one of the most heart-wrenching situations that I hear about: a person brings their friend to the ED, because the friend is very sick or injured.  The ED is treating the friend, but for a period of time the friend is unconscious.  You inquire about your friend’s status.  The staff says, “We can’t tell you anything because of HIPAA.”  Or, “We can’t tell you anything because of privacy.”  Or some variation on the theme.

Frustrating and very upsetting, no?

Even more frustrating is that it’s NOT TRUE.

That’s right.   The HIPAA Privacy Rules specifically allow healthcare providers to give limited information about a person to the person’s friend or family members if, in the best judgment of the providers, such a disclosure would be in the best interest of the patient.

Well, geez, I’m thinking that it’s definitely in the best interest of your unconscious friend for the doc to let you know what’s going on, or at least what to expect.  What do they think — that you’re going to use the fact that your friend is suffering from, say, a bad concussion, to steal the friend’s identity and go on a spending spree with his credit cards?  Come on, get REAL.

Here’s what Health & Human Services — remember, they’re the ones that administer and are responsible for the HIPAA Privacy Rules — says about the subject — and I’m copying this straight from their website (!

Here ya go —

Does the HIPAA Privacy Rule permit a doctor to discuss a patient’s health status, treatment, or payment arrangements with the patient’s family and friends?

Yes. The HIPAA Privacy Rule at 45 CFR 164.510(b) specifically permits covered entities to share information that is directly relevant to the involvement of a spouse, family members, friends, or other persons identified by a patient, in the patient’s care or payment for health care.

“If the patient is present, or is otherwise available prior to the disclosure, and has the capacity to make health care decisions, the covered entity may discuss this information with the family and these other persons if the patient agrees or, when given the opportunity, does not object.

“The covered entity may also share relevant information with the family and these other persons if it can reasonably infer, based on professional judgment, that the patient does not object. Under these circumstances, for example:

“A doctor may give information about a patient’s mobility limitations to a friend driving the patient home from the hospital.

“A hospital may discuss a patient’s payment options with her adult daughter.

“A doctor may instruct a patient’s roommate about proper medicine dosage when she comes to pick up her friend from the hospital.

“A physician may discuss a patient’s treatment with the patient in the presence of a friend when the patient brings the friend to a medical appointment and asks if the friend can come into the treatment room.

“Even when the patient is not present or it is impracticable because of emergency circumstances or the patient’s incapacity for the covered entity to ask the patient about discussing her care or payment with a family member or other person, a covered entity may share this information with the person when, in exercising professional judgment, it determines that doing so would be in the best interest of the patient. See 45 CFR 164.510(b). Thus, for example:

“A surgeon may, if consistent with such professional judgment, inform a patient’s spouse, who accompanied her husband to the emergency room, that the patient has suffered a heart attack and provide periodic updates on the patient’s progress and prognosis.

“A doctor may, if consistent with such professional judgment, discuss an incapacitated patient’s condition with a family member over the phone. 

“In addition, the Privacy Rule expressly permits a covered entity to use professional judgment and experience with common practice to make reasonable inferences about the patient’s best interests in allowing another person to act on behalf of the patient to pick up a filled prescription, medical supplies, X-rays, or other similar forms of protected health information. For example, when a person comes to a pharmacy requesting to pick up a prescription on behalf of an individual he identifies by name, a pharmacist, based on professional judgment and experience with common practice, may allow the person to do so.”

How about THAT! 

Sometimes I think that the excuse “We can’t do X-Y-Z because of HIPAA” is just that — an excuse that a lazy healthcare provider or administrative staff uses to get them out of doing their job.  Sounds official, though, doesn’t it?  “Can’t do it because of the HIPAA LAW.”  Well, uh, that isn’t what the HIPAA rules say.

There you have it — use this information next time you need it.

Next time on this blog — how to protect yourself and your family members and friends from having to deal with the “I can’t do it because of the HIPAA law” excuse.

I blog regularly about the HIPAA Privacy & Security Rules.  If you’re having a problem related to healthcare/patient privacy, getting a copy of your medical records (or those of your family), and other health privacy related questions — I’d be honored to help, so please email me directly at  And yes, I’m working on the website!  And yes, please tell your friends about this blog!


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