By Mike Greer
Sometimes church members mistakenly claim that HIPAA (the American Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) applies to church communications about the medical status of those listed or mentioned in church prayer meetings. HIPPA applies only to hospitals and other health care providers such as nursing homes. The HIPAA Privacy Rule requires health care safeguards to protect the privacy of personal health information and sets limits and conditions on the uses and disclosures of that information without patient authorization. HIPPA does not legally apply to churches.
Church members are correct, however, in assuming that the basic principle of a right to health information privacy that is foundational to HIPPA should be honored by churches. Churches should also be aware that the fact that HIPPA does not apply to them does not mean that a church or its individual members are immune to lawsuits over the unauthorized revelation of false medical information and sometimes even accurate medical information about an individual that is made public without their permission.
If, for example, a hospital employee takes a patient’s name and medical condition to a church prayer meeting and they do not have that patient’s express verbal permission, then that employee, even if a church member, is violating HIPPA and may be inviting legal action and/or inviting disciplinary actions by their employer. In this case the church may also be risking a suit under tort laws that address the Invasion of Privacy and a Breach of Confidentiality.
Wednesday night prayer services serve as important informational periods for those who wish to be caught up on the church family and the community. Still, we must be careful not to confuse our need to inform or be informed with the larger purposes of our collective periods of prayer.
While appropriate attention to the realities of tragedy, grief and illness by our community of faith is appropriate, an inordinate focus on matters of physical health can misshape and bring imbalance to our collective prayer life. For this reason I have always insisted that our routine prayer services should be balanced by opportunities to share the multi-generational celebrations, achievements and milestones of those connected to the church family. If we are to truly enter into a time of sharing our deepest concerns for the physical welfare of others, then our prayers should be specific in what we ask God to do for those we name. We should also be specific in our requests for God to reveal how we may support, affirm and encourage those we are praying for.
Whenever church members or staff verbalize or record a name on a prayer list or website, whether a member or a non-member, they should always do so with a regard for that person’s right to privacy. Here are some guidelines that wise churches have instituted:
— Any person’s name published on a church prayer list or website should always be with that individual’s express permission. Additional details about health matters should also be listed only with an accompanying permission. In some cases where the individual is extremely ill, or not an adult, this permission may be given by an appropriate caregiver, guardian or family member.
— Everyone has the right not to have their hospitalization or other medical treatments made public. Some churches have written policies and options that allow for a verifiable permission for all public prayer requests, including website requests. These forms sometimes allow individuals to request that the church pray for them even as they remain unnamed. Assigned volunteers or church staff members should function as gatekeepers for formal church prayer listings. The church’s pastor should educate the congregation about privacy rights and should lead in the congregational practice of honoring people’s right to privacy.
— Many people wish to have the church pray for them in times of crisis. There is an additional benefit from directly seeking permission from someone to ask the church to pray for them. A personalized in-person request creates an especially beneficial one-on-one opportunity for prayer with that individual at that moment, even before a more general invitation to pray for them is brought before the congregation. In many cases we should have already prayed with and for someone before we bring their name and need before the congregation.