Corporate Compliance

Should a local psychology class be permitted to observe our dementia unit?

Compliance Monitor, April 12, 2007

Q: A local college psychology class would like to observe residents in our dementia unit. Is this allowed under HIPAA, or do we need authorization from the residents? We would not disclose any names; the class members will just observe and ask questions.

A: This is a grey area. The privacy rule permits you to use or disclose PHI without patient authorization for healthcare operations. The definition of healthcare operations includes "conducting training programs in which students, trainees, or practitioners in areas of healthcare learn under supervision to practice or improve their skills as healthcare providers" and "training of non-healthcare professionals."

It's difficult to make a clear case that college-level psychology students are training to be healthcare professionals, or that this is part of their training as non-healthcare professionals. Because these are dementia patients, they probably cannot give you authorization for students to observe them-which means you would need to get authorization from their family members. Although you would not give the students the patients' names, HIPAA considers a full-face photograph to be a patient identifier. The students may also recognize some of the patients.

I would recommend against allowing this observation. I think the contribution to the education of the students would be minimal, and this could be considered an invasion of privacy for a vulnerable group of patients.

Editor's note: Mary Brandt, president of Bellaire, TX-based Brandt & Associates, LLC, answered this question. This is not legal advice. Consult your attorney for legal matters.

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