When does mental illness or another mental condition constitute incapacity under the Privacy Rule? For example, what if a patient who is experiencing temporary psychosis or is intoxicated does not have the capacity to agree or object to a health care provider sharing information with a family member, but the provider believes the disclosure is in the patient’s best interests?
Section 164.510(b)(3) of the HIPAA Privacy Rule permits a health care provider, when a patient is not present or is unable to agree or object to a disclosure due to incapacity or emergency circumstances, to determine whether disclosing a patient’s information to the patient’s family, friends, or other persons involved in the patient’s care or payment for care, is in the best interests of the patient. Where a provider determines that such a disclosure is in the patient’s best interests, the provider would be permitted to disclose only the PHI that is directly relevant to the person’s involvement in the patient’s care or payment for care.
This permission clearly applies where a patient is unconscious. However, there may be additional situations in which a health care provider believes, based on professional judgment, that the patient does not have the capacity to agree or object to the sharing of personal health information at a particular time and that sharing the information is in the best interests of the patient at that time. These may include circumstances in which a patient is suffering from temporary psychosis or is under the influence of drugs or alcohol. If, for example, the provider believes the patient cannot meaningfully agree or object to the sharing of the patient’s information with family, friends, or other persons involved in their care due to her current mental state, the provider is allowed to discuss the patient’s condition or treatment with a family member, if the provider believes it would be in the patient’s best interests. In making this determination about the patient’s best interests, the provider should take into account the patient’s prior expressed preferences regarding disclosures of their information, if any, as well as the circumstances of the current situation. Once the patient regains the capacity to make these choices for herself, the provider should offer the patient the opportunity to agree or object to any future sharing of her information.
*Note: The Privacy Rule permits, but does not require, providers to disclose information in these situations. Providers who are subject to more stringent privacy standards under other laws, such as certain state confidentiality laws or 42 CFR Part 2, would need to consider whether there is a similar disclosure permission under those laws that would apply in the circumstances.