Office of University Communications

Patient Privacy Laws and the Media

This media guide is a summary of patient privacy laws and information regarding The University of Toledo Medical Center's legal and ethical responsibilities to patients that the news media may encounter during interactions at The University of Toledo Medical Center or University of Toledo Health clinics as reporters and editors seek information on the conditions of patients.

For patient conditions or communications assistance, contact Christine Billau, media relations specialist, at 419.530.2077 or .

HIPAA and the news media

The federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) mandates regulations that govern privacy, security and administrative simplification standards for health-care information management, including patient records.

In addition to HIPAA, federal laws prohibit hospitals from releasing any information regarding a patient being treated for alcohol or substance abuse. There are also various state laws that address the privacy of health information, such as HIV and mental health statutes.

Among other things, HIPAA privacy regulations restrict the information health-care providers may include in a patient directory and release to the public, including news media. Directory information is limited to three elements pertaining to news organizations, and patients have the option of further restricting the release of the directory information by "opting out" of the directory — thereby removing themselves from all internal and external inquiries except by those directly responsible for the patient's medical care.

News media access to patient information

The three directory elements pertinent to news organizations are:

1.  Name — Unless the patient has exercised the "opt-out" provision, directory information about a particular patient can be shared with any person who asks for the patient by name.

2.  Condition — Only a physician can determine the patient's diagnosis and/or prognosis. UTMC uses the following terms to describe a patient's condition:

    • Undetermined — Patient is currently being evaluated.
    • Good — Vital signs are stable and within normal limits. Patient is conscious and comfortable. Indicators are excellent.
    • Fair — Vital signs are stable and within normal limits. Patient is conscious, but may be uncomfortable. Indicators are favorable.
    • Serious — Vitals signs may be unstable and not within normal limits. Patient is acutely ill. Indicators are questionable.
    • Critical — Vital signs are unstable and not within normal limits. Patient may be unconscious. Indicators are unfavorable.
    • Deceased/Coroner's Cases — The death of a patient, while considered a matter of public record under Ohio law, is considered protected health information under HIPAA. Thus, the condition of death may be released for expired patients who have not opted out of the directory. However, UTMC will notify the next of kin before releasing the death of a patient to the public.

When a death is investigated by the county coroner, questions about the cause of death should be addressed to that public office. The coroner's office also may have information about which funeral home is handling arrangements for the deceased.

3.  Location within the hospital — This can be given provided it does not reveal prohibited information, such as that the patient is being treated for substance abuse.

Gaining access to the hospital

Media representatives and photographers seeking access to UTMC or a UT Health clinic must contact the Office of University Communications for access assistance and must be escorted by a UT media relations representative at all times as it is not possible to grant free access to some UTMC areas due to laws and regulations. Areas most likely to fall in the non-accessible category include operating rooms, intensive care units, emergency departments, psychiatric departments and substance abuse units.

Gaining access to patients

Written permission from the patient is needed for photos or interviews. Consent forms will be available via a University Communications employee. If the patient is a minor, permission must be obtained from a parent or legal guardian.

It is important to emphasize that UTMC may deny the media access to the patient if it is determined the presence of photographers or reporters would aggravate the patient's condition or interfere with appropriate clinical care.

Public figures

From time to time UTMC may provide medical care to public figures or others of notoriety. Public persons are not subject to different or lower standards of privacy than other patients when it comes to a UTMC's policy for releasing information to the media.

This summary is adapted from the Hospital Council of Northwest Ohio's General Guidelines for Hospitals and the News Media Regarding Patient Information.

Last Updated: 7/15/24