Today’s post was inspired by a question from Andrew, who wrote about the television show Awake: “In the most recent episode, [the main character, a police officer] is involved in a hostage situation, and a psychiatrist is in the room, and talks about the hostage taker’s mental health in detail. Given the circumstances, was that legal?”
This is a pretty complicated question. First, we have to determine which law applies, and there are several to choose from. Often when people talk about doctor-patient confidentiality they are actually referring to the physician-patient privilege, which is a rule of evidence in some jurisdictions, including California. Cal. Evid. Code § 994. Since this incident didn’t involve the psychiatrist testifying in court, it doesn’t apply.
Apart from the evidentiary privilege, there is also a duty of confidentiality, which is both an ethical and a legal duty. At the state level, California has the Confidentiality of Medical Information Act, and at the federal level there is the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, better known as HIPAA. Both of these apply in this case, but there are exceptions to both.
California was one of the first states to recognize that therapists have an affirmative duty to warn others when a patient may have violent intentions. Tarasoff v. Regents of the Univ. of Cal., 17 Cal.3d 425 (1976). The Tarasoff case is fairly famous, and is frequently discussed in law school torts casebooks. Notably, however, the Tarasoff case was decided before the CMIA was passed, and the CMIA does not contain an exception for protecting others from a violent patient. This left therapists in a tricky position, relying on the exception in the evidentiary privilege to find an implicit exception in the duty of confidentiality.
This recently changed with the passage of AB 1178 in 2007, which amended the CMIA to allow disclosure of medical information
consistent with applicable law and standards of ethical conduct, by a psychotherapist … if the psychotherapist, in good faith, believes the disclosure is necessary to prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat to the health or safety of a reasonably foreseeable victim or victims, and the disclosure is made to a person or persons reasonably able to prevent or lessen the threat, including the target of the threat.
A covered entity may, consistent with applicable law and standards of ethical conduct, use or disclose protected health information, if the covered entity, in good faith, believes the use or disclosure:
(i)(A) Is necessary to prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat to the health or safety of a person or the public; and
(B) Is to a person or persons reasonably able to prevent or lessen the threat, including the target of the threat;
I didn’t do a detailed review of the case law, but I suspect disclosing a patient’s mental health information to a police officer handling a hostage situation probably counts.
So, to sum up, the exceptions to the state and federal duties of confidentiality allow the psychiatrist to disclose the information, and the Tarasoff case imposes a duty to do so. It looks the psychiatrist was in the clear.