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Legal • 6 minute read

Privacy: How To Handle HIPAA

Privacy: How To Handle HIPAA
By Kristina James
Published by Ruby

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Those reams of paperwork you sign every time you go to the doctor… do you ever read them?

Most people don’t have enough patience to wade through the small print of HIPAA regulations, which is the acronym for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.



The central point of HIPAA is to govern how health care providers and insurers protect the privacy of a patient’s medical information.

This information includes a person’s physical and mental health conditions (past and present), any health care provided to that person, and billing records related to patient care.

Patients themselves are the only people outside of medical personnel who can access their medical records under HIPAA.


When HIPAA becomes a hindrance.

This level of privacy is important but can spell a huge headache for relatives of older people who need to manage their loved one’s medical care.

If the person you are caring for is relatively healthy, physically and mentally, doctors can share information under HIPAA if they are given either written or verbal consent by the patient.

But what happens if their capacity has diminished and they can no longer make sound medical decisions alone? This is the conundrum that many families of older adults are facing.


Planning ahead

The easiest path for disclosure of medical information is if the patient has agreed in advance that medical personnel can share it with a family member.

If you are the patient.

It is your medical information that needs sharing, there are three Smart Steps you need to take to stay ahead of the game:


1. Tell your doctor

When you’re at your doctor’s office, ask them how you can nominate people with whom they can share information. It may be one of the forms you fill in on every visit, but you can make sure they keep it on file in case of an emergency.


2. Set up a health care power of attorney.

This generally goes into effect when the person becomes incapacitated in some way – which includes being unconscious or under anesthetic – and will allow a designated person to access medical information about a loved one.

Creating a health care power of attorney is fairly easy. Most states provide the forms for powers of attorney online – simply search for “Healthcare Power Of Attorney” and the name of your state. Be sure you find the forms that meet your state’s requirements as they are only legally binding in the state you complete!

You fill out the form designating one person to hold that power, have it witnessed and notarized, and update it as necessary.


3. Store it in a secure, available place.

Keep the form with your other important documents. It’s a good idea to make sure not only multiple family members have the form but also your physicians and insurance companies.


How Ruby can help

Ruby’s Vault is a safe place to store all the information your family needs to care for a loved one. We guide you to gather and store important documents, and members of your Circle can access information quickly, from anywhere.

And rest assured, everything in Ruby is protected with the same level of security as an FDIC-insured bank. Learn more.

If you are the caregiver.

If the person you’re caring for is willing, and physically/mentally able to give you permission to access their information, help them to follow the three steps above.


If you’ve been caught unprepared.

There are “common sense” clauses built into HIPAA laws that make sure patients are taken care of if they are not in a position to communicate their consent.

On the Government’s Health and Human Services website it states “your health care provider may share or discuss your health information with family, friends, or others involved in your care or payment for your care if he or she believes, in his or her professional judgment, that it is in your best interest.”


For example:

  • A surgeon who did emergency surgery may tell a spouse or close relative about their condition, either in person or by phone, while they are unconscious.
  • A pharmacist may give a prescription to a friend who has been sent to pick it up.
  • A doctor may discuss drugs with a caregiver who calls the doctor with a question about the right dosage.

But in many cases, it can also be a seemingly unbreakable barrier to getting the information you need to look after your loved one.


Be in the room.

Try to physically go with your loved one to appointments, and be in the room with them and their doctor. Once the doctor has seen you in their presence, they can accept that as “implied consent” and are able to share information in the future.


They said “no”.

It’s sometimes the case that an older parent doesn’t want their doctor to talk to the family about their health. This can happen if a parent is embarrassed about their medical condition, or feels threatened by their shrinking privacy.

First, there’s nothing preventing the family from communicating with a doctor. Make a phone call or put your concerns in writing if an older parent begins acting in unusual ways, or can no longer explain the medical advice he/she is getting.

The doctor is not required to answer you but at least you can make them aware of any changes in behavior the family perceives.


Extreme Cases

The extreme end of these issues is what we’re trying to avoid: A parent who you believe to have become unable to make sensible decisions for themselves – such as in the case of dementia or Alzheimers – refusing their permission to share information.

This becomes a legal issue, one that we covered in this article here. You can also get advice and guidance from your state’s Adult Protective Services.

To learn more about HIPAA, visit There you’ll find a more detailed list of patient rights and a frequently-asked-questions section.

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