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At Your Service
What Information Can You Release After a Patient Dies?
Psychiatric News
Volume 43 Number 2 page 21-21

Q. One of my patients has died, and suicide is strongly suspected. I have received verbal requests for information from family members, the medical examiner, and a police detective. I know that confidentiality survives the death of the patient, but I am having difficulty deciding what kind of information I may divulge and to whom.

A. You are correct that patient confidentiality does indeed survive death, and physicians are often torn between the legal and ethical duties to protect information and the desire to be of assistance to grieving family members and other entities like the coroner and the police. Fortunately, there are some well-established, practical steps that physicians can take to make this process more manageable.

In most states, it is the personal representative or the executor of the estate who can authorize the release of medical records. That individual should complete and sign an acceptable written authorization in his or her capacity as personal representative or executor and provide official documentation confirming his or her status.

The statutes vary from state to state in regard to releasing information to the medical examiner or coroner. For example, some states require subpoenas, while others allow a mere written request stating the applicable authorizing statute. In any case, the request should be put in writing.

The same holds true for the police. It is not uncommon for law enforcement officers to represent that their investigation requires the physician's urgent response. The unhappy reality, however, is that there is no urgency if the patient has already died. The appropriate response is to have the requesting officer or investigator put his or her request in writing and cite his or her authority to access the requested information (usually a statute or regulation).

Once a written request is received from a personal representative, a medical examiner, or a law enforcement officer, Psychiatrists' Program participants may want to contact the Risk Management Consultation Service (RMCS) helpline for assistance with evaluating and responding to the request. The RMCS is available between 8:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. ET Monday through Friday at (800) 245-3333, option 2. Nonparticipants may want to contact their risk manager or personal counsel for guidance.

Q. I have a psychiatric group practice that consists of 10 psychiatrists and two nurse practitioners. I would like to know if you offer group coverage for such a practice.

A. Yes. The Psychiatrists' Program offers professional liability insurance coverage for multidisciplinary behavioral health care groups. All practitioners—psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and other behavioral health care providers practicing in a group—can be covered under one policy, along with the group practice itself. All of the benefits and features of the individual insurance program are available to members of the group, including access to the toll-free Risk Management Consultation Service. Furthermore, Groups may be eligible for up to an additional 5 percent discount. Additional details about the group program are posted at<www.psychprogram.com/groups>. For more information, please call (800) 245-3333, ext. 314, or e-mail groups@prms.com.

Q. I am a risk manager working at a psychiatric hospital and am looking for risk management articles concerning the release of patient information. Do you have materials that can assist me?

A. PRMS monographs are available on a variety of topics and are designed specifically for anyone in the practice of behavioral health care: psychiatrists, psychologists, nurse practitioners, social workers, and office managers. In these materials, PRMS maps strategies and offers guidelines that can be applied to your practice. All monographs are provided in a convenient and easy-to-use CD-ROM format and can be purchased at<www.prms.com/store>.

Participants in the Psychiatrists' Program can access a library of complimentary risk management tips and information in the online education center by visiting the "For Participants Only" section at<www.psychprogram.com>. For a nominal fee, participants can also purchase additional resources like subject specific monographs on CD-ROMs and seminar material from past risk management seminars.

This column is provided by PRMS, manager of the Psychiatrists' Program, for the benefit of APA members. More information about the Program can be obtained online at<www.psychprogram.com>; by phone at (800) 245-3333, ext. 389; or by e-mail at TheProgram@prms.com.

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