Tips to Help Journalists Understand HIPAA

Introduction to HIPAA to Educate Media Professionals

Almost every day on the news we hear of tragic occurrences such as a motor vehicle accident, fire, or other disaster that prompts individuals to seek treatment at area hospitals. These instances often cause crime and public safety reporters seeking information about victims of these accidents that seek treatment at area hospitals. Common hospital media release policies, as developed by executives of the American Hospital Association and enforced by hospital administrators and media relations personnel, include policies that limit the release of patient condition and other identifiable information to the news media. More about these policies will be discussed below.

What is HIPAA?

According to the Department of Health & Human Services, HIPAA stands for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996. This law protects the privacy of individually identifiable health information that is held by covered business entities and associates, as it gives patients the right to have their information private and respected. Individually identifiable health information is defined as any health-related information, in addition to demographic information, that relates to the individual’s past, present, or future physical or mental health or condition, the provision of health care to the individual, or the past, present, or future payment for the provision of health care to the individual; and that identifies the individual or for which there is a reasonable basis to believe that it can be used to identify the individual (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 2003). This individually identifiable health information includes common demographic identifiers including name, address, birth date, and Social Security Number (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 2003).

This information is protected by the HIPAA law that safeguards its privacy, integrity, and availability as it is disclosed for patient care.

Covered Entities

Covered entities include health care providers, health plans, and a health care clearinghouse. Health care providers include doctors, nurses, psychologists, dentists, chiropractors, pharmacies, and nursing homes; “if they transmit any information in an electronic form in connection with a transaction for which HHS has adopted a standard” (Department of Health & Human Services, 2003). Health plans include insurance companies, company health plans, and any government programs that fund health care such as Medicaid, Medicare, and military/veterans health care programs. A health care clearinghouse is an entity that processes “…nonstandard health information they receive from another entity into a standard (i.e., standard electronic format or data content), or vice versa” (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 2003).

Common Hospital Media Release Policies

As stated by the California Healthcare Association (2003), “releasing information on the condition of hospital patients to the news media requires a careful balancing of patient privacy with the media’s desire for information” (2003). Although it is the job of the reporter to seek relevant information about people who are in the news, knowledge of the laws and regulations of the safeguard of privacy information that may identify an individual in terms of their health care and safety should be thoughtfully considered and understood by members of the news media in relation to individuals who may be under care at area hospitals. It is the job of hospitals to protect the privacy of information related to the health and medical conditions of its patients.

The California Healthcare Association (2003) lists the following general guidelines related to the release of patient information to the news media:

  • “Under HIPAA, information about the condition and location of a patient may be released only if the inquiry specifically contains the patient’s name. No information can be given out if a request does not include the patient’s name” (California Healthcare Association, 2003).
  • “If the patient has not requested that information be withheld, and the request for information contains the patient’s name, hospitals generally may release the patient’s condition and location within the hospital. However, hospitals must use discretion in releasing a patient’s location; at no time may a hospital disclose a patient’s location in a psychiatric or substance abuse unit” (California Healthcare Association, 2003).

Hospitals are permitted under HIPAA to use the following one-word descriptions of patient conditions when disclosing information to the news media. These guidelines are suggested by the American Hospital Association.

  • Undetermined — Patient awaiting physician 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 questionable.
  • Critical — Vital signs are unstable and not within normal limits. Patient may be unconscious. Indicators are unfavorable.
  • Treated and Released — received treatment but not admitted

Source: Kansas City Healthcare Communicators Society, Greater Kansas City Health Council, the Missouri Association for Healthcare Public Relations and Marketing and the Kansas Hospital Association, 2002.

Because this is a patient’s personal health information, it is important that the privacy and rights of the patient be respected. A patient is always given the opportunity to object to the inclusion of their name and condition in the hospital’s directory. Hospital and media personnel must respect and follow the patient’s choices in these instances.

Tips for Media Relations Professionals to Educate Journalists about HIPAA

It is important to understand as journalists the laws and regulations surrounding health information as it relates to patient conditions and understand what constitutes personally identifiable health information. Hospital media relations professionals have the task to enforce HIPAA regulations to journalists while still maintaining good relations with the media. Journalists may or may not have little or any background knowledge about HIPAA, and may not understand the full extent of the laws. The following are three tips I have suggested for media relations professionals to educate journalists to better understand HIPAA.

  1. Understand that journalists and media members may have little knowledge of HIPAA. Host information sessions to educate journalists about HIPAA, which include defining what HIPAA is and explaining why there are standards in place to limit the transmission of patient information.
  2. Create a media release policy and post it on the “news and media” information section of the hospital website, near the contact information of the media relations professional, so that journalists will be able to see the hospital and HIPAA policies before contacting the hospital. This can help provide a springboard to answer questions before contacting the hospital to prevent frustration on the part of the journalist.
  3. Create training videos for the media about HIPAA that include simulations of journalists contacting hospital media relations professionals about a patient’s condition. The dialogue would show the journalist what he or she can expect when contacting a hospital to find out the condition of a patient. Since journalists may or may not have time to read an entire policy, video clips can help a busy journalist learn more about HIPAA regulations that can be accessed by journalists multiple times.


U.S. Department of Health & Human Services:

California Healthcare Association:


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