Privacy: Wrongful Disclosure of HIV Status Is Medical Negligence, Invasion of Privacy, Statutory Violation

September 13, 2017 | Strategic Insights for Health System


​A New Jersey court of appeals held that a physician's wrongful disclosure of a patient's HIV status was actionable as an act of medical negligence, a civil tort of invasion of privacy, and a violation of the state's AIDS Assistance Act, which provides a private cause of action for disclosing a patient's confidential HIV status without the patient's written consent. The court also clarified that the causes of action are subject to a two-year statute of limitations. A trial court had dismissed the complaint, granting summary judgment to the defendant physician.

The patient originally brought a lawsuit claiming that the defendant physician, without obtaining the patient's consent, disclosed the patient's HIV-positive status during a bedside discussion in the patient's hospital room, in the presence of an unidentified third party. In its ruling, the court commented that physicians have a legal duty to comply with the privacy and confidentiality provisions of the health information privacy rule of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), noting that HIPAA does not provide a private cause of action by aggrieved individuals. Aside from the privacy and confidentiality requirements imposed by HIPAA, the court affirmed that physicians have a common-law duty to maintain the confidentiality of patient records and information. The breach of a physician's duty to maintain the confidentiality of a patient's medical information is a deviation from the standard of care that is actionable in a personal injury claim based upon negligence, the court stated. In addition, the court reiterated that New Jersey's AIDS Assistance Act provides that a record maintained by a healthcare provider, healthcare facility, or laboratory that “contains identifying information about a person who has or is suspected of having AIDS or HIV infection" is confidential and shall be disclosed only for the purposes authorized by the Act. Contents of such confidential records may be disclosed without the prior written informed consent of the person who is the subject of the record only under limited circumstances. The court noted that the legal interest protected by the Act is not the reputation of the HIV-positive individual, but rather that person's right to control access to his or her private medical information. The statute also provides a private right of...

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