Where the HIPAA Privacy Rule applies, does it permit a health care provider to disclose protected health information (PHI) about a patient to law enforcement, family members, or others if the provider believes the patient presents a serious danger to self or others?

The HIPAA Privacy Rule permits a covered entity to disclose PHI, including psychotherapy notes, when the covered entity has a good faith belief that the disclosure: (1) is necessary to prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat to the health or safety of the patient or others and (2) is to a person(s) reasonably able to prevent or lessen the threat.  This may include, depending on the circumstances, disclosure to law enforcement, family members, the target of the threat, or others who the covered entity has a good faith belief can mitigate the threat.  The disclosure also must be consistent with applicable law and standards of ethical conduct.  See 45 CFR § 164.512(j)(1)(i).  For example, consistent with other law and ethical standards, a mental health provider whose teenage patient has made a credible threat to inflict serious and imminent bodily harm on one or more fellow students may alert law enforcement, a parent or other family member, school administrators or campus police, or others the provider believes may be able to prevent or lessen the chance of harm.  In such cases, the covered entity is presumed to have acted in good faith where its belief is based upon the covered entity’s actual knowledge (i.e., based on the covered entity’s own interaction with the patient) or in reliance on a credible representation by a person with apparent knowledge or authority (i.e., based on a credible report from a family member or other person).  See 45 CFR § 164.512(j)(4).

For threats or concerns that do not rise to the level of “serious and imminent,” other HIPAA Privacy Rule provisions may apply to permit the disclosure of PHI.  For example, covered entities generally may disclose PHI about a minor child to the minor’s personal representative (e.g., a parent or legal guardian), consistent with state or other laws.  See 45 CFR § 164.502(b).


Created 11/25/08

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