Are COVID tests covered by HIPAA? The simple answer: sort of. Rest assured that your patient information is unlikely to fall into the wrong hands.
First of all: what is HIPAA?
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) is best-known for its role in doctor-patient confidentiality.
The patient’s file contains details known formally as “protected health information”; these details, according to HIPAA, prevent your doctor from sharing your health information casually and without your consent. Protected health information cannot be shared without express, written permission from you and you only. This includes your employer, your family, and even other doctors.
Essentially, HIPAA helps you control the flow of your own medical information—the transaction of information from general healthcare center to specialist, for example, allows each professional to acquire your file without allowing it to be passed freely behind closed doors. You’re asked to sign on the dotted line, any permitted disclosures involved identified clearly, and your journey continues.
HIPAA empowers healthcare patrons just as much as it protects them. This so-called “privacy rule” also covers the patient’s right to play an executive role in their own health; covered entities are required to elaborate, educate, and provide the full monty in terms of a given patient’s options forward.
“Covered entities” refer to any healthcare professional, fiduciary entity, clearinghouse, clerical worker, or organization beholden to these rules—that is, if you tell your husband your cholesterol levels, he can’t legally be held accountable if he ends up spilling the beans.
You can read a ton about HIPAA in its own right on the US Department of Health and Human Service’s website. Right now, though, there’s still one major question that remains: are COVID tests protected by HIPAA?
Are your COVID test results covered by HIPAA?
COVID-19 test results and status fall under a specific code of service outside the usual HIPAA protocol. While protected in a general sense, your results may be shared without authorization under the following circumstances:
- COVID-19 reporting and contact tracing—your datum may be included in the official statistics, even if you have not explicitly opted in
- If a positive COVID case endangers the life of a first-responder, EMT, nurse, or other frontline worker, your COVID status as a patient may be disclosed to them
- Public health officials may consult COVID data en masse in order to assess a cluster of cases or a possible outbreak
In any of these exceptions, doctors and other public health workers are trained to limit the amount of information that they pull from your file to only the bare-bones necessities. This ensures that nothing sensitive or dangerous is compromised.
This provision is valid only when your information is shared with a public health authority or to people that your case may put at risk. Aside from this small circuit of professionals, your COVID status remains safely under wraps.
COVID and HIPAA: because your privacy matters
The COVID HIPAA clause was written to contend with the unprecedented mess that COVID-19 has put on our plates.
At no other time in history has patient information played such a critical role in public health and safety—some may have their concerns, but, at the end of the day, it’s a relatively small price to pay. These rules protect you just as much as they protect the rest of the world.