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Can health care providers engage in confidential conversations with other providers or with patients, even if there is a possibility that they could be overheard?

Answer:

Yes. The HIPAA Privacy Rule is not intended to prohibit providers from talking to each other and to their patients. Provisions of this Rule requiring covered entities to implement reasonable safeguards that reflect their particular circumstances and exempting treatment disclosures from certain requirements are intended to ensure that providers’ primary consideration is the appropriate treatment of their patients. The Privacy Rule recognizes that oral communications often must occur freely and quickly in treatment settings. Thus, covered entities are free to engage in communications as required for quick, effective, and high quality health care. The Privacy Rule also recognizes that overheard communications in these settings may be unavoidable and allows for these incidental disclosures.

For example, the following practices are permissible under the Privacy Rule, if reasonable precautions are taken to minimize the chance of incidental disclosures to others who may be nearby:

  • Health care staff may orally coordinate services at hospital nursing stations.
  • Nurses or other health care professionals may discuss a patient’s condition over the phone with the patient, a provider, or a family member.
  • A health care professional may discuss lab test results with a patient or other provider in a joint treatment area.
  • A physician may discuss a patients’ condition or treatment regimen in the patient’s semi-private room.
  • Health care professionals may discuss a patient’s condition during training rounds in an academic or training institution.
  • A pharmacist may discuss a prescription with a patient over the pharmacy counter, or with a physician or the patient over the phone.

In these circumstances, reasonable precautions could include using lowered voices or talking apart from others when sharing protected health information. However, in an emergency situation, in a loud emergency room, or where a patient is hearing impaired, such precautions may not be practicable. Covered entities are free to engage in communications as required for quick, effective, and high quality health care.

 

 

Date Created: 12/19/2002
Last Updated: 03/14/2006

Content created by Office for Civil Rights (OCR)
Content last reviewed on July 26, 2013
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