In the medical industry, few rules are taken more seriously than the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), better known as the law that governs the release of protected health information (PHI). Most times, PHI should be kept private unless the patient gives express permission that it can be shared, but there are exceptions during emergencies. In these extenuating circumstances, it is permissible or even encouraged for healthcare employees to release some PHI in order to help patients.

In the event of an emergency such as a natural disaster or an act of terrorism, victims and their families are sure to be scared and disoriented. While even family members aren’t usually allowed to know PHI without the patient’s permission, healthcare employees are encouraged to use their best judgement and release select information (such as a patient’s overall condition) if they deem it to be appropriate. For example, if you work as a coder or a biller in an office that is receiving patients from a local disaster and a distraught visitor asks to know if their spouse is ok, you are permitted to release this select info.

This can become more complicated when media outlets are involved, but the same basic principles apply. In general, it is ok to release basic information such as whether or not notable patients are deceased or have been released. Keep in mind, however, that it is never required to provide this information, so if you are in doubt, either consult your practice manager or err on the side of caution and stay quiet.

Though billers and coders may not be pressed for information as often as providers, emergencies are stressful times where patients and their families will go to great lengths to understand what’s going on. If you are approached by someone looking to know information about a disaster victim, consider the turmoil they must be going through and use your best judgement to provide basic information as needed.