What are my medical privacy rights during the coronavirus pandemic?

Health care providers are required to notify the Minnesota Department of Health of positive coronavirus cases which triggers a “contact tracing” investigation. During that investigation, MDH will ask an individual where they’ve been and who they’ve been in contact with, but individuals are not required to share that information. 

“Medical privacy, even pre-pandemic or pre-emergency, is actually largely misunderstood. A lot of patients and providers think that ‘okay it’s completely confidential no one can see it without my consent,’ and that’s actually not the case. There’s actually a lot of exceptions to consent, the pandemic probably being the perfect example,” attorney David Holt said. 

Holt says when you visit a health care provider and sign a consent form there is usually a provision that says some of your medical information can be shared in the case of a health emergency. 

“You sign those patient notice of privacy practices forms when you go into your provider but no one really reads them, right? But down buried deep in those provisions they talk about things like public health emergency,” Holt said. 

Holt says medical information shared with the Minnesota Department of Health can be shared even further. 

“In Minnesota, the commissioner of health is allowed to, it’s a pretty vague rule, is allowed to share it as necessary to address the public health threat,” Holt said. 

The Minnesota Department of Health says when they conduct contact tracing and notify people who may have come in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID19 they don’t reveal the name of the person who tested positive. In a statement to FOX 9 they say: 

“The Minnesota Department of Health takes HIPPA and its requirements very seriously and we value the privacy of individuals, while striving for transparency by providing as much data to help inform the public as possible.”

Holt says laws surrounding giving medical information to the government in the case of an emergency were already in place before the pandemic. He says the biggest changes to the law since the pandemic started have been those surrounding telemedicine. 

Holt says lawmakers have temporarily eased rules surrounding telemedicine to help patients get batter access to healthcare providers and help providers connect more easily with patients. 

“There were a lot of restrictions pre-COVID on telehealth and telemedicine how it was reimbursed whether or not it was even available for some procedures and right now a lot of those rules have been modified or suspended during the duration of the pandemic and that creates a lot of conversation about is this something we could continue forever,” Holt said. 

Holt says we can expect to see conversations around those rules to start happening in Minnesota and in Washington D.C. in the next few months.