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Workplace Privacy, Data Management & Security Report

Health Care Providers May Disclose PHI to Avert Threats to Health and Safety, HHS Letter Confirms

Following the mass shootings in Newtown, CT, and Aurora, CO, Office for Civil Rights Director Leon Rodriguez issued a letter on January 15, 2013, reminding covered health care providers about disclosures of protected health information that may be made to avert threats to health and safety.

The letter points out, for example, that mental health professionals may alert police, a parent or other family member, school administrators or campus police, and others who are in a position to stop a credible threat by a patient to inflict serious and imminent bodily harm on one or more persons. It is important that the letter also points out that while HIPAA may permit the disclosure, other federal and state laws, along with professional ethical standards, need to be taken into account because they may provide greater protections. Of course, health care providers should not wait for a crisis to happen to think through these issues, but should instead address this issue in its crisis management policy.