Can Hospitals Share COVID-19 Data with EMS? Yes!
As healthcare professionals and administrators continue to adapt to working in COVID-era conditions – caring for patients while also taking extra steps to keep their providers safe – many hospitals around the country are wondering if (, and how) they can share COVID-19-related patient data with EMS and other first responders.
The resounding answer is yes; sharing COVID-19 data back to EMS is not a violation of privacy laws and is encouraged during the public health crisis we’re facing. There are existing precedents that pave the way for carefully sharing patient health information (PHI) to protect the health of EMS and other first responders.
On March 24, 2020, the HHS Office of Civil Rights (OCR) issued guidance clarifying that the HIPAA privacy rule permits a covered entity (like hospitals, nursing homes, and other medical facilities) to disclose the PHI of an individual who has been infected with, or exposed to, COVID-19, with law enforcement, paramedics, other first responders. While this is an exception to the general rule that covered entities may not disclose PHI to others without authorization of the patient, these exceptions have been applied in the past in the context of AIDS, SARS, and Ebola.
Who Can Receive Information About COVID-19?
First responders and others, including funeral directors and contract tracers, can receive information about COVID-19 exposures. Also, in March 2020, NIOSH expanded the definition of what can be shared with first responders under the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Treatment Extension Act of 2009 to include data related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Ryan White Act outlines infectious diseases that first responders may be exposed to and which personnel can receive notifications on potential exposures. The list was expanded to include firefighters, paramedics, emergency medical technicians, and others.
As an example of how this data could be used, EMS personnel responding to a patient with known COVID-19 exposure or diagnosis would take extra precautions and use personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks and face shields. The EMS agency would not post the identities of known exposures publicly – like on its website or through distribution to the media – or even share the entire list with its EMS personnel. Instead, it would utilize the PHI on a per-call basis.
When should COVID-19 exposure data be shared?
While sharing COVID-19 exposure data is essential in protecting the health of first responders and helping contain the pandemic, OCR guidance explains that a covered entity must make reasonable efforts to limit the information disclosed to that which is the “minimum necessary.” For example, it would likely not be necessary to share information about the patient’s other diagnoses or non-contagious medical conditions.
However, there are very real situations in which the patient’s previous COVID-19 diagnosis or exposure might affect how EMS would handle their prehospital care. The OCR conditions for sharing PHI information include:
- When disclosure is needed to provide treatment, for example, during a transport to another facility, the staff at a hospital may share with medics that the patient they are transporting has COVID-19. This might affect the level of PPE usage and extra sanitation procedures after transport.
- When first responders may be at risk of infection, for example, if a medic transports a patient to the hospital who is later found to be COVID-19 positive, the hospital may share the information back to the responding medic.
- When the disclosure of PHI to first responders is necessary to prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat to the health and safety of a person or the public, COVID-19 is a global pandemic, and it is in the ethical interest of everyone to prevent the spread of the disease. HIPAA permits disclosure to first responders to slow the transmittance of COVID-19.
How Can My Hospital Share COVID-19 Data with EMS and First Responders?
As a recent paper by the National EMS Information System (NEMSIS) and the law firm Page, Wolfberg & Wirth (PWW) explains, EMS greatly benefits from receiving access to hospital discharge, diagnosis, outcome, and other clinical information. Sharing these data points is not in violation of HIPAA or other federal laws. In fact, multiple federal agencies, including the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Department of Health and Human Services, and OCR, agree that data sharing between EMS and hospitals is beneficial and appropriately protects patient data.
Still, your hospital undoubtedly wants to do its part to protect patient health information during the process of sharing appropriate data with first responders. To this end, your hospital can leverage industry-specific software to ensure the data you share with EMS is secure and accessed only by appropriate providers. ESO Health Data Exchange (HDE) software allows you to securely bidirectionally share data between your hospital’s EMR/EHR platform and the EMS ePCR software. Rather than calling first responders on the phone or sending emails to share potential COVID-19 exposures, you can let the software do the heavy lifting for you while ensuring the data stays safe.
Among other outcome data that hospitals might share with EMS, ESO HDE software protects PHI content in its secure environment, shares in real-time, and is fully auditable and automated. Instead of adding one more call to make each week or more emails to send, COVID-19 data can be included in the datapoints shared back with local EMS agencies. Learn more about ESO HDE and its uses in hospitals now.
By keeping first responders and prehospital agencies healthier and safer, hospitals are not only helping fight the spread of COVID-19 but also lightening the load on their hardworking staff. Working together to increase safety and precautions in the most efficient way possible will go a long way in ensuring there are plenty of health care providers ready and able to continue this fight for as long as needed.
Visit the ESO COVID-19 Data Dashboard, updated daily with data from more than 2,6000 agencies.