What happened to my roommate? HIPAA and death

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) ensures that the personal information of our nursing home residents stays personal, but sometimes it’s taken too far. Well-meaning staff members, not wanting to violate HIPAA, are unsure whether or not to share news of a resident’s death with that person’s friends in the nursing home, so they err on the side of caution. This leaves other residents wondering what happened and, if they suspect a death occurred, they’re left with the unhappy knowledge that their own death could also pass unacknowledged.

Some members of Psychologists in Long Term Care recently discussed this and the consensus was that since someone’s death is a matter of public record, letting other residents know about it is not in violation of HIPAA. To follow up on this, I contacted the New York State Department of Health Nursing Home Hotline (888-201-4563) and they concurred: It’s okay to tell others that the person died, but not to give medical details.

Similarly, it’s within HIPAA guidelines to let a roommate know, for example, that their friend in the hospital should be returning to the nursing home soon, but not to discuss details of their health condition without the permission of the hospitalized resident or their family.

Part of creating more homelike nursing facilities is honoring the bonds created between residents. It’s important to share news, within the limits of HIPAA, of how friends and neighbors are faring, and it’s especially important to acknowledge the lives and deaths of those in our care.

Dr. Barbera is an author and a licensed psychologist consulting in long-term care facilities in the New York City area. She frequently lectures on subjects related to psychology, aging, and nursing homes. Dr. Barbera is available for private consulting with organizations, institutions, and individuals around eldercare issues. Visit her personal blog at www.mybetternursinghome.blogspot.com.

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