HIPAA in Real Life and in Tragedy

A surprising news article came across my computer the other day.  The article was about the results of the autopsy & related tests on the Las Vegas shooter.  It surprised me, because the article was clearly reporting medical information (“PHI”) even though HIPAA protects medical privacy even after death.  At first, I wondered if his autopsy records had just been released in some sort of emotional retaliation (ie, what he did was so bad that he doesn’t deserve privacy) but on second thought I realized that was extremely unlikely—we are generally ruled by law in the US.

HIPAA does indeed protect PHI for 50 years after death.  In general, this is as it should be, right?  No one wants to see their loved ones’ medical records made public.  However, exceptions can be made, and a little research found that that is what happened here.  The Associated Press & a Nevada news organization went to court to request an exception to the typical waiting period.  The judge ruled in their favor, and the county coroner complied with the court order to turn over the shooter’s autopsy records.

The judge also released the autopsy records of the victims, which I feel considerably less peaceful about.  I can imagine that being a further trauma to family members who would very much like to not open their computers and be surprised with details of their loved one’s death.  Medical details, whether connected to a horrific tragedy, or simply part of a routine doctor’s visit or test results, can be hurtful if not treated with care & privacy.  It’s a good, if painful, real life reminder.