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If an adult patient who may pose a danger to self stops coming to psychotherapy sessions and does not respond to attempts to make contact, does HIPAA permit the therapist to contact a family member to check on the patient's well-being even if the patient has told the therapist that they do not want information shared with that person?


Yes, under two possible circumstances:

  1. Given that the patient is no longer present, if the therapist determines, based on professional judgment, that there may be an emergency situation and that contacting the family member of the absent patient is in the patient’s best interests; or
  2. If the disclosure is needed to lessen a serious and imminent threat and the family member is in a position to avert or lessen the threat.

In making the determination about the patient’s best interests, the provider may 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. In either case, the health care provider may share or discuss only the information that the family member involved needs to know about the patient’s care or payment for care or the minimum necessary for the purpose of preventing or lessening the threatened harm.

Additionally, if the family member is a personal representative of the patient, the therapist may contact that person. However, a provider may decide not to treat someone as a personal representative if the provider believes that the patient has been or may be subject to violence, abuse, or neglect by the personal representative, or the patient may be endangered by treating the person as the personal representative; and the provider determines, in the exercise of professional judgment, that it is not in the best interests of the patient to treat the person as the personal representative. See 45 CFR 164.502(g)(5).

See Guidance on Sharing Information Related to Mental Health, https://www.hhs.gov/hipaa/for-professionals/special-topics/mental-health/index.html

Guidance on Personal Representatives, https://www.hhs.gov/hipaa/for-professionals/privacy/guidance/personal-representatives/index.html

Content created by Office for Civil Rights (OCR)
Content last reviewed on January 3, 2018