When a mass casualty incident occurs such as a crime or disaster, loved ones of victims often gather at a hospital to seek information. That scenario recently played out in Orlando following the shootings at a nightclub there.

However, during those chaotic times, hospital executives may become easily confused about policies for information release, and information systems may be overwhelmed or not even come into use. It’s for these challenging times that hospitals need adequate policies and procedures to appropriately disseminate information.

Sometimes loved ones get information and sometimes they are told HIPAA prevents the dissemination of information or restricts it to blood relatives. But that’s not accurate, says Ann Bittinger, a healthcare attorney at the Bittinger Law firm in Jacksonville, Fla. If a patient is not incapacitated, then HIPAA rules apply.

If the patient is incapacitated, HIPAA guidance from the HHS Office for Civil Rights permits giving patient information to family, friends, loved ones such as partners, clergy and others if the healthcare professional believes the patient would want those individuals involved in the care, as they can inform clinicians about medical conditions, allergies or other information that caregivers should know, Bittinger says.

Media reports state that Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer asked the White House for a waiver of HIPAA requirements to share information with the loved ones of victims, but such a waiver is not required and it wasn’t granted.

To prevent confusion and better serve loved ones, hospital disaster plans should include one or more designated emergency department liaisons to communicate with family, friends and the media, Bittinger advises. Liaisons could include a privacy or security officer, a public relations representative aided by an attorney, or a health information management professional.

Bittinger received an email from Marissa Padilla, principal deputy assistant secretary for public affairs at HHS, giving guidance on release of information during mass casualty events.

“HIPAA allows healthcare professionals the flexibility to disclose limited information to the public or media in appropriate circumstances. These disclosures, which are made when it is determined to be in the best interest of a patient, are permissible without a waiver to help identify incapacitated patients, or to locate family members of patients to share information about their condition. Disclosures are permissible to same sex, as well as opposite sex partners.

“According to 45 CFR 164.510, permitted uses and disclosures of health information include disclosure to a family member, other relative or close personal friend of the individual, or any other person identified by the individual; the protected health information directly relevant to such person’s involvement with the individual’s healthcare or payment related to the individual’s healthcare; disclosure to assist in the notification of (including identifying or locating), a family member, a personal representative of the individual, or another person responsible for the care of the individual; of the individual’s location, general condition or death.”

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