Employee leaves in ambulance: How much to disclose?

A reader of the Forum section of our free HR Weekly e-letter posed this question: “An employee was taken from work by ambulance with chest pain. For privacy reasons, we didn’t give any details to staff. Some were upset they weren’t informed or updated. Did we handle this correctly?” Here’s how some HR professionals replied:

1. “This is a sticky situation that happens frequently, whether it’s chest pains, an off-work accident, surgery or a new baby. Unfortunately, because of HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) you can get in trouble relaying any medical information to anyone, including management.” —T. Tate

2. “The less management speaks about the employee, the better. It’s better left to the employee to tell fellow co-workers. All that management has to say is that he or she was not feeling well.” —Brenda

3. “It is the responsibility of the employer to protect employees’ personal information, even from concerned co-workers. Specific information should not be announced. Information to management should be limited as well, since there could be some issues with ADA.” —Kim

4. “Keep the information management discloses general in nature—the kind of response you’d get if you called the hospital. Direct staff to contact the employee or his or her family if they desire more info. Many times, friends of the sick employee will keep fellow workers apprised about the employee’s condition. Management should not get involved.” —David

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5. “Unless the worker signed a release authorizing disclosure, HIPAA prohibits disclosing the information to co-workers. It is best to use very generalized statements like, ‘He is OK and will return as soon as possible.’” —Wes 

6. “This is a good time to remind co-workers that HIPAA prevents all employees from passing health information … even at the water cooler. If you learn of information, don’t spread it, even with the best intentions.” —Peg