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HIPAA Help for Families Coping with Mental Health Conditions

Your Guide to Communication with Your Loved One’s Care Team

When a loved one has a mental health condition, everyone in the family is impacted.  Thankfully, there are many ways HIPAA allows compassionate communication between loving families/caregivers and health care providers.  Unfortunately, you may not be aware of them.  And, frequently, health care providers avoid them.  We tell you the HIPAA facts that offer help for families – facts that help you support your loved one.

Who are “caregivers” and “loved ones”? …

    • “Caregivers” and “family or parents” are used to mean the same thing – anyone who is supporting a loved one with a mental health condition.  We use the word “caregivers” because sometimes they may be good friends, too.
    • “Loved one” refers to the person with the mental health condition.  This may be a parent, child, or very close friend.
Raging river representing the need for help for families coping with mental health conditions

In Crisis?  Here are Five Important HIPAA Facts that Provide Help for Families

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Download 5 Important HIPAA Facts

These HIPAA facts help families coping with a mental health crisis

HIPAA protects the privacy of patients.  As a result, conversations between the patient and their doctors can exclude you, the caregiver.  Nevertheless, the people who oversee HIPAA know there are times when doctors should talk with families.

The agency in charge of HIPAA is the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).  And, if you are interested, HHS documents about patient privacy are listed in our Resources page.  

However, we wanted to make it easier for you.  Therefore, we boiled down some key points.   They are the five basic facts that are important for you to know during crises.

By the way, for simplicity, we use the word “doctor” a lot.   However, you can substitute the term “health care provider” anywhere “doctor” is used.

Fact 1:  Patient consent to share health information with caregivers

Usually, caregivers must have their loved one’s permission before a doctor can talk with themHowever, HIPAA does not require consent to be a physical signature.  Instead, doctors can talk with families if the patient gives permission any of these ways:

Signed consent:

Optimally, the patient signs a release-of-information form provided by the doctor’s office or hospital.

Verbal consent:

When asked, the patient says it is fine for a doctor to talk with their caregivers.

Implied consent:

A doctor might tell the patient that he or she wants to speak to the patient’s family.  Or, a doctor might talk with a patient while family is in the room.  As long as the patient does NOT object, a doctor can safely assume that it is fine to talk with the caregivers.

Fact 2:  Exceptions – Where consent is not needed

Three circumstances allow doctors to talk with caregivers without the patient’s permission.  And, these are called “exceptions.”

Emergency

The patient is deemed to be in a psychiatric emergency.  In that case, the patient is usually in the Emergency Department or the Psychiatric Emergency Department.

Incapacitation

The patient is considered not capable of make a decision for themselves.  For instance, psychosis, extreme intoxication, drug overdose, or unconsciousness are all conditions that would make this true.  NOTE:  A decision that a person is incapacitated can be made by a doctor and does not require a court order.

Threat of Harm

The patient poses a threat of harm to themselves or others.

Fact 3:  Allowed, not required

In the case of the three exceptions above, doctors are allowed to talk with caregivers.  However, they are never required to.  Therefore, do everything you can to show the doctor that talking with you will benefit your loved one.

Fact 4:  One-way information

On the other hand, caregivers can always give a doctor information about their loved ones.  Thankfully, nothing in HIPAA says you cannot provide this “one-way information.”  Similarly, there is nothing in HIPAA that says that a doctor cannot listen to a caregiver.

Fact 5:  Confidentiality for the caregiver

A doctor is not supposed to share information received from a caregiver with the patient if two conditions are met.

        • The caregiver asks the doctor to keep the communication confidential AND
        • The doctor promises not to tell the patient they spoke to the caregiver.

More specific questions?

See our “Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)” webpage.

If you have more specific questions, please see our webpage called “FAQs.”  There, you can find detailed answers to many common concerns that parents have when their loved one is struggling with a mental health crisis or condition.  Each answer is supported by documentation from the US Department of Health and Human Services.

Disclaimer

Because we’re not lawyers, guidance from HIPAA for Caregivers is not a legal opinion.  This applies to all information in this website.  In addition, it is true for email or any other type of communication.  

Instead, we tell you about resources that are available to the public.  And, we cite the sources.  That way, you can easily find the original documents.   

We recommend that you use the original sources to verify our points.  Also, please use them to make decisions in your own situations.  Conveniently, our Resources page contains links to all our sources of information.