Further, in many cases, 911 dispatch centers are run by counties or other government agencies that are not even "covered entities" under HIPAA, so they can freely give out patient information necessary for the ambulance crews to not only find the location, but to also provide valuable information about the patient's condition---if they are breathing or not, if there is childbirth in progress, etc. This further underscores that such disclosures are clearly treatment-related, and the regulations don't restrict this exchange to information to the time of patient contact or after it. Treatment-related disclosures may be required before you even get to the patient, so this means that public safety agencies should give information out over the air when that information is needed to find the patient and to assist in treatment.
Many dispatch agencies do not make a practice of transmitting patient names, and often the street address is sufficient to allow the EMS crew to locate the patient. And it may not be necessary to give the name of the residence out over the air on a routine basis. But if an ambulance crew needs the name of the residence to find the location, or any other information, dispatchers should provide such information to them without question. Many EMS responders in rural areas, and even some in not-so-rural areas, may indeed require a name on a mailbox to find the location even when they have the address. The fact is, rural addressing continues to be a challenge in some areas, and some streets still may not even have house numbers. Even ones that do are often not visible from the street, which may prompt the ambulance crew to ask for a name. Ambulance crews should be able to get this information without question from their dispatch center. In our view, people who interpret HIPAA to the contrary are giving bad, and sometimes dangerous, advice.
Unfortunately, the HIPAA Privacy Rule has led to an outcry that a law meant to protect patient privacy has resulted in "overkill" (as USA Today puts it) that can actually result in harm to patients in an emergency. Anyone who has questions about the issues raised in the USA Today article -- or any of the other tough HIPAA issues -- should contact legal counsel knowledgeable in this area of the law. Page, Wolfberg & Wirth, LLC has produced the industry's leading HIPAA compliance resources -- The Ambulance Service Guide to HIPAA Compliance and HPTV - The HIPAA Privacy Training Video for EMS, which have been relied upon by thousands of ambulance services across the United States, and we stand ready to provide your ambulance service with common sense information on how to deal with the tough patient privacy issues you may encounter.