Guidelines for Releasing Information on Hospital Patients
The federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) includes privacy regulations that govern
what patient information may, or may not, be released to individuals outside
the hospital, including the media.
These guidelines are intended to help members of
the media and the public better understand the legal issues and rules when seeking patient information from a hospital.
Hospitals and health systems are responsible for
protecting the privacy and confidentiality of their patients and patient
Patients have the right to ask that information be
withheld. As long as a patient has not made this request, hospitals can release
the following information without obtaining prior patient authorization:
- Name—Information can be released to those people (media
included) who ask for the patient by name. Information cannot be released to an
individual unless that person knows the patient’s name.
- Condition—A one-word explanation of the patient's condition can be released.
- Location within the hospital—As long as prohibited information is not
revealed, such as the patient being treated for substance abuse, the location
can be released.
Religion—This information can be released only
to clergy on request. Clergy do not need to ask for the individual by name. Hospitals are not obligated to collect this
information. If hospitals collect this information, they should inform the
patient why they are collecting it and inform the patient that it will be
handed over to clergy if requested.
Releasing Information on Condition of Patients
Identify the Patient by Name
Information about the patient’s general condition and location of an
inpatient, outpatient or emergency department patient may be released only
if the inquiry specifically identifies the patient by name.
No information may be given if a request does not
include a specific patient’s name or if the patient requests that the
information not be released. This includes inquiries from the press.
Patients Can “Opt Out” of Providing
The hospital has a responsibility to tell patients what information will
be included in the hospital directory (name, general condition, location, and
religion) and to whom that information will be disclosed (to people, including
media, who ask for the patient by name, and to clergy).
The hospital may inform the patient of this information verbally or in
writing. The patient has the option to expressly state that he or she does not
want information released—including information confirming his or her presence
in the facility.
The hospital may obtain the patient’s agreement or objection verbally or
For the one-word condition, hospitals generally use
the terms “undetermined,” “good,” “fair,” “serious,” or “critical.” Definitions
of patient conditions are as follows:
Undetermined—Patient is awaiting physician and/or assessment
Good—Vital signs are stable and within normal limits.
Patient is conscious and comfortable. Indicators are excellent.
Fair—Vital signs are stable and within normal limits.
Patient is conscious, but may be uncomfortable. Indicators are favorable.
- Serious—Vital signs may be unstable
and not within normal limits. Patient is acutely ill. Indicators are
Critical—Vital signs are unstable and not within normal
limits. Patient may be unconscious. Indicators are unfavorable.
Information on Children
If a reporter or a member
of the public calls a hospital with a child’s name and wants the one-word
condition, that information can only be released if the parents have consented,
either verbally, or in a written document.
Public persons are not
subject to different standards than other patients when it comes to a
hospital’s policy for releasing information to the media.
Hospitals will not issue
statements on sexual assaults, child abuse, suicide or suicide attempts, or
cases involving drugs or alcohol.
Death of Patient
The death of a patient may be reported to the authorities by the
hospital, as required by law.
Information about the cause of death must come from the patient’s physician,
and a legal representative of the deceased must approve its release.
This means that hospitals cannot share information with the media on the
specifics about sudden, violent, or accidental deaths; or deaths from natural
causes, without the permission from the decedent’s next-of-kin or other legal
A hospital may not disclose a patient’s cause of death, date of death, or
time of death to the media.
Releasing Information on Location of Patients
The patient’s location may be included in the hospital directory to support visits by friends and family, as well as the delivery of flowers, cards, and gifts.
However, as a matter of policy, the patient’s location should not routinely be given to the media, and the patient can direct the hospital to withhold this information.
If a patient has not asked that his or her information be withheld from the hospital’s directory, the hospital may disclose the patient’s location in the hospital to anyone who asks for the patient by name, without the patient’s authorization.
If the patient is no longer at the facility, the hospital may disclose that fact in response to such an inquiry.
Information on patients that are transferred to another hospital must be obtained from the hospital where the patient is currently located. HIPAA regulations do not allow hospitals to comment on patients once they have left the facility.
Under the HIPAA privacy rule, a hospital may disclose, to individuals who ask for the patient by name, that a patient was treated and released because this only provides the patient’s general condition (that they were treated at the hospital) and the patient’s location (that the patient is no longer at the hospital).
A hospital may not release information regarding the date of release or where the patient went upon release, without patient authorization.
Patient Interview Requests
The following activities require written authorization
from the patient:
Drafting a detailed
statement (i.e., anything
beyond the one-word condition) for approval by the patient or the
patient’s legal representative
Taking photographs of
reporters are invited into a hospital by a patient or the patient’s family, the
media must contact the hospital public relations representative to make
arrangements before entering the hospital.
relations staff will always accompany reporters to assure that the privacy of
other hospital patients is maintained.
will deny the media access to the patient if it is determined that the presence
of photographers or reporters will aggravate the patient’s condition or
interfere with patient care.
If the patient is a minor, permission for any of these
activities must be obtained from a parent or legal guardian.
Under certain circumstances, minors can authorize
disclosure of information without parental approval or notification. State laws
The HIPAA privacy rule does not speak to individuals
who appear in background photos. Under the HIPAA privacy rule; however,
hospitals may not release identifiable photographs of patients at the hospital,
without the patient’s authorization.
Matters of Public Record
of public record refer to situations that are reportable by law to public
authorities, such as law enforcement agencies, the coroner, or public health
laws and/or regulations require health care facilities to report a variety of
information to public authorities, it is not the responsibility of facilities
to provide that information in response to calls or other inquiries from the
media or other parties.
who are involved in matters of public record have the same privacy rights as
all other patients. The mode of transportation by which a patient arrives at
the hospital should have no bearing on the hospital’s approach to releasing
information about the patient.
long as the patient has not requested that information be withheld, hospitals
may release the patient’s one-word condition and location to individuals who
ask about the patient by name.