One of the more common issues faced by healthcare practices (and businesses generally) is how to respond to subpoenas or other requests for medical records of patients and employees. Those who receive these requests often feel compelled to respond in a timely fashion, particularly when it is an attorney subpoena or letter. Unfortunately, responses are made before fully considering critical legal and professional risks.

Consider the following examples:

  • A New Jersey physician was forced to defend his access to family medical records without consent or authorization before the New Jersey Board of Medical Examiners resulting in defense costs and ultimately continuing education requirements for the physician;
  • An Illinois hospital incurred significant legal fees to defend its disclosure of medical records in connection with the plaintiff’s divorce action.
  • Ohio’s Cleveland Clinic could not convince a federal district court to dismiss a patient’s claim for invasion of privacy following the clinic’s disclosure of medical records to a grand jury in response to a subpoena. The court found the state’s patient-physician privilege more protective than HIPAA. Turk v. Oiler, No. 09-CV-381 (N.D. Ohio Feb. 1, 2010).
  • An Alabama patient’s claim that his physician impermissibly disclosed his medical records to his employer survived a motion for summary judgment because the physician made the disclosure without having received a written request, as required under state law.
  • In Wisconsin, a pharmacist was sued after disclosing an employee’s prescription history to his employer. The pharmacist’s ignorance of the states privacy laws and the employee’s attorneys false pretenses to obtain the information were not a sufficient defense. The court found the release was knowing and willful and held the pharmacist must be familiar with the technical requirements for releasing patient data.
  • A Court held another New Jersey doctor liable when he released a patient’s records to opposing counsel pursuant to an improper subpoena, even though the subpoena’s defects were of a technical nature. Again, the Court required the doctor to know the laws regarding patient privacy, specifically noting it was the doctor’s burden to consult with legal counsel to ensure the release is proper. Crescenzo v. Crane, 350 N.J. Super. 531 (App. Div. 2002), cert. den. 174 N.J. 364 (2002).

Responding to these requests often is a delicate balance between avoiding being hauled into court for non-compliance with the subpoena/request and violating patient rights, such as by responding to a subpoena that may be improper or invalid, or otherwise failing to take into account applicable federal and state requirements before releasing the records.

Some of the most common issues which must be considered are:

  1. What type of information is contained within the records requested?
  2. What statutory, regulatory or common law protections apply to some or all of the information requested, such as the patient-physician privilege?
  3. Is the authorization valid?
  4. Whether responding to the subpoena is appropriate without patient authorization or providing the patient an opportunity to object to the disclosure?
  5. Is a court order, including an order with specific findings, needed for some or all of the responsive information?
  6. Is the requesting party authorized to be acting for the individual/patient/employee?
  7. What safeguards should be taken to ensure the disclosure is made in a secure manner?
  8. Must the business keep a record/account for the disclosure?

As more and more individuals, entities and attorneys seek medical information, including through discovery in litigation, these issues will only become more prevalent. Most healthcare practices look to HIPAA as the governing law that determines the proper use and disclosure of patient data, but state laws and professional obligations also must also be considered. Under HIPAA, a covered entity generally may not use or disclose an individual’s protected health information without a written authorization or providing the individual the opportunity to agree or object. There are, however, a number of thorny exceptions, such as for requests made in the course of judicial or administrative proceedings, or disclosures to law enforcement.

Nevertheless, HIPAA generally provides that these exceptions can be trumped by more stringent state laws that prohibit uses or disclosures of PHI without certain additional protections. In fact, courts routinely look to not only generally applicable state statutory requirements, but also protections under the "common law." This fact has been highlighted in decisions from courts throughout the country, as well as decisions by state boards of medical examiners, including those summarized above. In addition to fines and penalties which can be extensive, the cost of litigation to defend these suits can run into the tens of thousands of dollars, all for “simply” responding to what appears to be a lawfully issued subpoena or request.

Medical offices, clinics and practices, in particular, need to have a comprehensive, easy to understand plan that addresses what to do when staff receive requests for patient records. The plan should anticipate the kinds of requests that are likely to be received and the acceptable responses, including approved form documents to be used, as well as a means for documenting the request, verification steps taken and the response. Of course, the plan should alert the user to situations where additional guidance might be advisable to ensure the disclosure itself is proper, as well as the method of disclosure.