Google “student health records confidentiality,” and many of the hits you'll get link to individual college and university policy pages on how student medical records are maintained and managed. That's telling; secondary institutions are making sure that they update and publish their approach to keeping records confidential after several high-profile cases have shone a spotlight on privacy concerns over student medical records.
When a student takes advantage of campus health services, whether for medical or mental health issues, they have an expectation that their files are protected in the same way as their files at the general practitioner's office. But that is not necessarily the case. Let's take a closer look at the causes—and consequences—of this lax privacy.
HIPAA and FERPA
We'll need to start with a helping of alphabet soup. Created by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) ensures security and privacy for Protected Health Information, aka PHI. You've probably signed a HIPAA form at a doctor's office. Essentially, it means that no one can access your medical records without your consent.
And then there's FERPA, or the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. This law sets forth the requirements for how schools handle students' educational records.
Health records are not covered by FERPA, but—and it's a big but—student health records at the secondary level can morph into educational records, often by simply being renamed as such. In short, privacy standards at campus health providers are markedly less stringent than at HIPPA-protected institutions. This means that an alarming array of people can access student files containing information about medical or mental health, such as presenting complaints, diagnoses, conditions, and treatment.
FERPA does have a “health and safety” clause, which allows practitioners to contact the authorities or the student's parent in emergencies, such as when a student makes a credible threat of violence against themselves or someone else.
Your College Can Access Your Info
If you are in conflict with your university or college, know that the department, office, or even individual school employees may be able to request and view your records. They'll know when you've had a COVID vaccination, what symptoms prompted them to get tested for a sexually transmitted disease, if you have a diagnosis that makes learning difficult, or if you have discussed thoughts of suicide or violence with your therapist.
Such information can be used by university administrators or a college's Office of General Counsel when it comes to a disciplinary matter. During the post-investigation phase after levying an allegation, the cards are already stacked in the school's favor. Students who are called on the carpet for a meeting or hearing do not necessarily enjoy the presumption of innocence; they may not be permitted due process; in some cases, they might be forbidden from having an attorney-advisor or any other advocate accompany them into the hearing.
As you might imagine, their odds of being exonerated and reinstated in good standing are even lower if there happens to be any damning medical evidence attained without your consent or even your knowledge.
There Is Help Available
If you are in this situation, or if you've already undergone discipline by a secondary institution, it's a smart idea to contact the Lento Law Firm. Attorney Joseph D. Lento's specialty is student discipline defense, and he and his expert team has unparalleled experience working with schools to resolve student conduct issues.
Call the Lento Law Firm at 888-533683 or contact us using this convenient form to learn more about your rights as a student, including your right to keep your medical records safe from prying eyes.