By now we are all aware of the horrible event that took place in Orlando over the weekend.  Mass casualties caused local hospitals and ERs to respond heroically.  One of the tasks required during these operations was the necessity to communicate patient status with family and loved ones.  Unfortunately, this was not handled very well.

According to WIRED, here is what happened:

“The CEO of the hospital (Orlando Regional Medical Center) came to me and said they had an issue related to the families who came to the emergency room,” Orlando mayor Buddy Dyer said in an interview. “Because of HIPAA regulations, they could not give them any information.” The mayor then asked the White House to waive HIPAA, which it agreed to do.”

While we do not expect the mayor of Orlando to be a HIPAA expert, we should expect better from the CEO of a major medical organization.  We also expect the press to do a little better job fact checking.  Many articles have now been published on the premise that a HIPAA waiver was required.  People complain about HIPAA all the time, and admittedly there are some gray areas that require thought and interpretation.  However a good part of the problem is just a basic lack of understanding of HIPAA.  Unfortunately many times this lack of education on the part of healthcare providers affects patients and patient care.  For example, the New York Times wrote a piece last year entitled “HIPAA’s Use as Code of Silence Often Misinterprets the Law”.  In the article several cases are listed where the HIPAA privacy rule has been misinterpreted.  But the end result is that patients, their families and their loved ones blame the regulation and then inevitably the wind of “those egghead regulators in Washington don’t know what they are doing” starts blowing.

The HIPAA missteps in Orlando have been adequately explained by Mike Semel, a noted authority on HIPAA on the blog EMR and HIPAA.  No one in Orlando needed to call the White House and/or ask for a HIPAA waiver.  By doing so they actually made things WORSE for all those effected.  Precious resources were devoted to communicating with the White House when they did not have to be.  And many people did not get patient information when they so desperately needed it.

Just to set the record straight, HIPAA does allow a health care provider to share information about a patient in the event of an emergency.  Here is an FAQ from the HHS website:

Question: If the patient is not present or is incapacitated, may a health care provider still share the patient’s health information with family, friends, or others involved in the patient’s care or payment for care?

Answer: Yes.  If the patient is not present or is incapacitated, a health care provider may share the patient’s information with family, friends, or others as long as the health care provider determines, based on professional judgment that it is in the best interest of the patient.  When someone other than a friend or family member is involved, the health care provider must be reasonably sure that the patient asked the person to be involved in his or her care or payment for care.  The health care provider may discuss only the information that the person involved needs to know about the patient’s care or payment

At HIPAA Secure Now! we provide HIPAA compliance services and include privacy training that covers this subject.  Quite often we get complaints about the HIPAA requirement for annual training.  “I’ve done that already” is something we hear on a regular basis.  Part of the reason for annual training is to refresh a health care provider’s memory for situations such as this.  Perhaps that is why HHS officials get exasperated when an event like this occurs.  Deven McGraw, Deputy Director Health Information Privacy, HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR) tweeted out Mr. Semel’s post:


The situation in Orlando was bad enough.  From a HIPAA perspective, let’s hope this is a lesson learned so that in the event of an emergency in the future the health care providers will act more responsibly.


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