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How HIPAA applies to patients with mental health conditions

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, annually, 20 percent of the U.S. adult population "experiences mental illness." Whether a mental health condition like depression is related to a specific event or is a genetic and chronic condition; mental health conditions are disabling and can also be difficult to treat.

For an individual who is suffering from an episodic or chronic mental illness, the personal costs can be great. From a societal view, mental illness is linked to a loss in earnings of roughly $193 billion dollars. Additionally, individuals living with these conditions are also more likely to develop other serious medical conditions. Given these sobering facts, from a medical provider's perspective, theirs is no doubt that prompt diagnosis and treatment is crucial.

Despite the prevalence of mental illnesses and the significant personal and societal consequences associated with failing to treat such conditions, individuals dealing with these issues often feel marginalized. There is definitely a stigma attached to mental illness and, consequently, privacy issues surrounding the sharing of medical information must be given serious consideration.

Under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, patients are provided assurances of and information related to how their personal health information is "used and disclosed by health plans and health care providers." While every health care provider and institution should do their part to comply with HIPAA and protect patients' privacy, when it comes to patients with mental illnesses, doing so may ultimately cause a patient or others to suffer harm.

Due to the nature of mental health conditions, HIPAA provides guidance related to when health care providers are permitted to share a patient's personal health information. For example, barring a patient's explicit objections, a provider may share information with a patient's family members if he or she believes that doing so is ultimately in a patient's best interests. Additionally, in cases involving minors with mental health conditions, health care providers are allowed to share and discuss a minor's health information with his or her parents or guardian. It's important to note, however, that many rules still exist with regard to what types of information can and should be shared.

Health care providers who have questions or concerns about patient privacy and specifically how HIPAA applies to patients with mental health conditions, would be wise to contact an attorney who handles health law matters.

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