A Delicate Balance: Behavioral Health, Patient Privacy, and the Need to Know

George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services

This issue brief explores the laws governing health information privacy as they relate to mental health and substance abuse treatment, and presents three scenarios illustrating the challenges in finding the right balance of privacy and disclosure.

March 2008

Health care providers who disclose or share patients' personally identifiable information about mental health and substance abuse treatment expose themselves and their patients to significant legal and other risks, including employment and insurance discrimination. Yet manual or electronic sharing of such information can help promote a more comprehensive picture of a patient's needs and reduce the risk of treatment errors.

This issue brief explores federal and state laws governing health information privacy as they relate to mental health and substance abuse treatment. It also presents three scenarios illustrating some of the challenges in finding the right balance between privacy and disclosure. To help reconcile the competing interests involved, the authors recommend that health care providers give mental health and substance abuse patients the technological tools to grant disclosure. And they propose that providers ensure that such patients are truly informed about the potential implications of not permitting their personal information to be released to other health professionals.

Finally, the authors recommend that penalties for violating privacy laws be swift and serious so that mental health and substance abuse patients have greater confidence in the appropriate disclosure and sharing of their information.

The complete issue brief is available under Document Downloads.