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Until death do us part


My colleagues and I have been debating whether a patient's right to privacy under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) continues after his death. For example, if a visitor came to see a patient who'd just died unexpectedly, could a nurse inform the visitor of the death? I say yes because a patient's death is a matter of public record. But my colleagues argue that if HIPAA regulations prevent us from revealing that a living person is hospitalized, surely revealing his death is forbidden too. Who's right?—L.B., GA.

You are, according to guidelines provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Under the HIPAA privacy rule, hospitals can use a facility directory to inform visitors about a patient's presence in the facility and his general condition. Information permitted in the directory includes the patient's name, general information about his condition that doesn't reveal specific medical details, and religious affiliation. The patient, who must be informed about the directory, has the option of restricting information, restricting access to it, or opting out of it.

Assuming that the patient hasn't imposed restrictions or opted out of the directory, the facility may provide directory information (except for religious affiliation, which is restricted to clergy) to anyone who asks for the patient by name. The fact that he's been “treated and released” or died can be disclosed as part of the directory. For answers to other questions about the HIPAA privacy rule, go to the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services Web site at and search for Privacy of Health Information/HIPAA.

Nursing2005, will seek professional advice on any reasonable question connected with nursing. Send queries to Advice Editor, Nursing2005, 323 Norristown Rd., Suite 200, Ambler, PA 19002, or e-mail to Put “Advice” in the subject line.

© 2005 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.