HIPAA & Natural Disasters

photo: ESA cc

HIPAA for Therapists has been watching with sadness in the last weeks as Hurricane Harvey wreaked havoc on the Texas & Louisiana coast, and now Irma is hitting Florida. So, first things first–I hope you are safe.  If you are fortunate to be high & dry, please consider donating a little money (see below). And if you aren’t personally mired in hurricane damage, let’s use this experience as a reminder that therapists have legal and ethical responsibilities that come in to play BEFORE a natural disaster hits.

A few notes about HIPAA & Harvey first:

  1. The OCR (Office of Civil Rights) announced a temporary “Limited Waiver” of some of HIPAA’s requirements for hospitals in the disaster areas.  It’s very limited, and temporary (72 hours at most) but still welcome to see policy role-modeling that survival is the priority.  (1.)
  2. The Texas Social Work Board is extending license renewals for social workers with licenses expiring in August. (2.)
  3. Texas is welcoming psychologists licensed elsewhere to apply for a temporary, quickly-issued license that will allow them to practice here for 120 days, with a focus on disaster areas.  (3.)

And now, my HIPAA nugget for the month:

Let us be reminded that disasters are something that HIPAA requires us to prepare for.

Even solo private practice therapists are ‘on the hook’ for making sure that PHI is available, private, and secure in the event of a natural disaster.

Could you access your records if you couldn’t get to your office? Would your records be ruined if your office flooded? If you have paper records, you would probably find yourself in a pinch.  On the other hand, if you’ve already made the switch to electronic records, you might be able to rest easy, for at least that one thing.  (Stay tuned for more: next month’s newsletter will highlight the safety of electronic records, with a spotlight on the one I personally use.)

Hurricanes do a lot of damage, but your medical records, at least, can be protected with some planning.  My recommendation: include the possibility of a natural disaster on your risk assessment, consider your options, and make a plan now to reduce those risks.  You’ll be glad you did.


One more important note: you are probably reading this on September 11.  9/11 is our “National Day of Service & Remembrance.”  I hope you’ll take a moment today to spread kindness in even more ways than therapists already do every day.  An easy one worth considering: a donation to help those who have been affected by the hurricanes.

Greater Houston Community Foundation (Harvey specific)

Save the Children (Irma specific)


  1. More info on the OCR’s waiver here.
  2. Social work license renewal here.
  3. Psychology emergency license info here.