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If a law enforcement officer brings a patient to a hospital or other mental health facility to be placed on a temporary psychiatric hold, and requests to be notified if or when the patient is released, can the facility make that notification?

The Privacy Rule permits a HIPAA covered entity, such as a hospital, to disclose certain protected health information, including the date and time of admission and discharge, in response to a law enforcement official’s request, for the purpose of locating or identifying a suspect, fugitive, material witness, or missing person. See 45 CFR § 164.512(f)(2). Under this provision, a covered entity may disclose the following information about an individual: name and address; date and place of birth; social security number; blood type and rh factor; type of injury; date and time of treatment (includes date and time of admission and discharge) or death; and a description of distinguishing physical characteristics (such as height and weight). However, a covered entity may not disclose any protected health information under this provision related to DNA or DNA analysis, dental records, or typing, samples, or analysis of body fluids or tissue. The law enforcement official’s request may be made orally or in writing.

Other Privacy Rule provisions also may be relevant depending on the circumstances, such as where a law enforcement official is seeking information about a person who may not raise to the level of a suspect, fugitive, material witness, or missing person, or needs protected health information not permitted under the above provision. For example, the Privacy Rule’s law enforcement provisions also permit a covered entity to respond to an administrative request from a law enforcement official, such as an investigative demand for a patient’s protected health information, provided the administrative request includes or is accompanied by a written statement specifying that the information requested is relevant, specific and limited in scope, and that de-identified information would not suffice in that situation. The Rule also permits covered entities to respond to court orders and court-ordered warrants, and subpoenas and summonses issued by judicial officers. See 45 CFR § 164.512(f)(1). Further, to the extent that State law may require providers to make certain disclosures, the Privacy Rule would permit such disclosures of protected health information as “required-by-law” disclosures. See 45 CFR § 164.512(a).

Finally, the Privacy Rule permits a covered health care provider, such as a hospital, to disclose a patient’s protected health information, consistent with applicable legal and ethical standards, to avert a serious and imminent threat to the health or safety of the patient or others. Such disclosures may be to law enforcement authorities or any other persons, such as family members, who are able to prevent or lessen the threat. See 45 CFR § 164.512(j).

Content created by Office for Civil Rights (OCR)
Content last reviewed on September 12, 2017