Information in medical records is considered highly private and sensitive. Medical ethics rules, state laws, and the federal law known as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), generally require doctors and their staff to keep patients' medical records confidential, unless the patient allows the doctor's office to disclose them. However, there are a variety of circumstances under which a doctor may share the information in medical records and personal medical information without the express permission of the patient. The following are some examples.
If the patient has suffered some traumatic injury and cannot make medical decisions for him or herself, the doctor may discuss the patient's medical information with that patient's next of kin. The family member will often need this information so that she can make an informed decision about the next steps in medical treatment. If the patient has a living will or a healthcare power of attorney, the doctor may only discuss the patient's condition with the people named in those documents.
Even in cases not involving traumatic injuries, under HIPAA, doctors can use and share patients' information and records with other health care providers as necessary for the patients' health and treatment. They may also discuss a patient's condition with family, relatives, and friends that the patient identifies as being involved in his or her healthcare, unless the patient objects. However, health care providers generally cannot share personal medical information and records with providers who are not involved in the patient’s care, unless all identifying information is removed.
The government and legal system usually respect patients' privacy and do not require doctors to disclose personal medical information. However, there are a few basic data points doctors must report. Doctors must file birth and death certificates. They must also report certain diseases they've treated over a certain time period so that the government can monitor the nation's health, although these disclosures do not usually include the patients' names. Doctors can also use your health information if necessary to protect public health, with one example being to report a flu outbreak.
Doctors must also report suspected cases of child abuse, even though the child or her parent did not expressly authorize the disclosure. Similarly, if a doctor thinks her patient's mental state will cause him to be a danger to himself or others, she may report this in order to prevent harm to innocent parties.
If the patient brings a personal injury or workers' compensation claim, in which his health is a major issue in the case, the doctor may come to court and testify about the patient's injuries. However, if the patient's health is not necessary to the case's resolution, the doctor usually cannot be forced to testify.
Medical privacy laws are varied and complex, particularly since they are addressed by both state and federal laws. If you are concerned that your personal medical information or records were improperly disclosed, it may be a good idea to contact a local Health Care Law attorney.