As a physical therapist, your work can be pretty challenging. Your services are in high demand across different medical fields and industries, from helping rehabilitate traumatic injury victims to attending to top athletes’ medical needs.
But just like doctors, physical therapists must also maintain a confidential therapist-patient relationship, or they risk losing their certification and license to practice. While it makes sense that you can’t disclose information about your patient to just about anyone, some seemingly harmless information requests could land you in hot water because they violate privacy rules. If a sports fan asks you about the medical condition of their favorite athlete, should you give them a tip?
To avoid trouble, you must learn what information you can’t disclose.
What is protected health information?
Protected health Information (PHI) refers to sensitive medical data about a patient’s physical or mental health.
Some examples of PHI include:
- A patient’s appointment schedules
- Medical history
- Billing statements
- Insurance information
- Email correspondence between you and your patient
This isn’t limited to old health records either since PHI can also apply to records and documents detailing the potential future condition of the patient. This means that, for instance, you can’t publicly disclose that the athlete you’re treating is at high risk of an ACL tear based on tests.
When can you disclose PHI?
There are certain exceptions where you can disclose PHI:
- Family and friends: The law allows you to share relevant PHI with a patient’s spouse, family, friends, or other people specified by the patient, especially in cases where sharing would be in the best interest of the patient.
- Law enforcement purposes: Privacy rules will allow you to disclose PHI to comply with court orders or if the information would help locate a suspect, fugitive, missing person, or material witness.
- Emergencies: You may disclose PHI to help identify and notify the patient’s family or guardians during a disaster.
Penalties for violating confidentiality rules
As per Pennsylvania’s State Board of Therapy’s rules, a physical therapist who reveals PHI to a third party uninvolved in the patient’s care without consent will have their certification suspended or revoked. On top of losing your license, your patient can sue you for violating therapist-patient confidentiality, the Department of Health and Human Services could fine you as much as $50,000, and you could even serve a 10-year prison sentence if you disclosed patient information with the intent of commercial advantage or malicious harm.
Like medical doctors, physical therapists must also abide by patient privacy laws. You shouldn’t share information recklessly, even about a celebrity under your care. But if you are faced with disciplinary action for violating PHI rules, don’t forget that you can secure the services of an attorney to help make your case.