Ask the Experts

Data Dilemma

I completed some forms when I visited student health. The reason for my treatment is confidential. Now, I am wondering are my records completely private and secure?

This question reveals a disturbing truth about privacy in medical records held by school health services. We must inform you that your privacy rights depend on which law governs the health service provider. Even then, there are notorious loopholes in the law.

Let us introduce the alphabet soup of FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. This original 1974 law typically applies to most college medical records. Then in 2000, a new law HIPAA, the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act, was enacted to cover some college medical records. University Law Professor Guest Pryal wrote, “…compared with HIPAA, FERPA is about as protective as cheesecloth”. It is a challenge to identify which law applies, in which situation. Here is an overview.

In general terms, HIPAA gives you the right of medical privacy from the school and your parents. FERPA allows your parents access to your records. If you are an over 18-year-old student, your records are securely protected under HIPAA. Now, if you are treated by a student health service provided through a university, your records fall under the looser FERPA rules. Your absolute privacy has been lost. If you require in-patient treatment, rather than just a clinic visit, your records now fall under HIPAA.

Add parents into the mix…and stir. They expect to be notified when their child requires serious medical treatment. A recent study reported over 60% of colleges notify parents about serious medical treatment, (as well as disciplinary infractions) of their children. Violence and shootings at schools increased pressure on colleges to share information about students who sought counseling, especially those who expressed suicidal or violent thoughts.

Colleges must walk a tightrope, balancing parental concern, legal liability and student privacy. The simplest measure we found was the inclusion of a medical authorization form, with the student’s enrollment. This gives parents the right to access a child’s records. Get your student to sign, before they leave the house and become too independent.

Big Brother is watching you, George Orwell.

Martin J. Young is a former correspondent of Asia Times.