FAQ: What parents need to know about patient privacy

Parents often believe that they will be notified if their son or daughter gets sick or injured and seeks care at MIT Medical. This is particularly true for parents who have children with pre-existing conditions. After all, as a parent, you have been making medical appointments for your child since they were born. It’s natural to assume you will remain involved in your child’s care once they enter college.

However, MIT students are considered adults once they turn 18. Federal law requires us to protect your child’s medical privacy. This means that we cannot share a students’ medical information—including information about diagnosis or treatment—with parents or others. However, there are times when you might be involved in your child’s care—for example, if your child gives us permission to discuss a specific episode of care with you.

This FAQ will answer your question about how patient confidentiality works in practice for students and their families. And remember, while we may not be able to answer direct questions about your child, we are always available to speak with you. We can listen to your concerns, suggest approaches for communicating with your child about health-related topics, and point you to additional resources.

What access do I have to my student’s medical records?

None, except in certain circumstances with written permission from your student. MIT Medical is required to comply with federal and state laws that protect the privacy of health information. These laws do not allow us to disclose health information about your student to you or to anyone else. However, your student may choose to provide written permission that will allow you to access a portion of their medical record regarding a specific episode of care.

What if my student is sick or hurt? Or has a chronic medical condition? Can I speak with their care provider?

Yes, with your student’s permission. Your student can fill out a form giving their provider permission to speak with you about a specific episode of care—for example, a specific illness or injury. So, for example, if your child has granted us permission to speak with you about a twisted ankle, that’s all we can discuss with you. We are legally prohibited from discussing any other visits to MIT Medical your student may have had, no matter how minor.

These permission forms are valid for six months. If your student would like their provider to continue speaking with you about an ongoing medical issue or chronic condition, they will need to fill out a new form every six months.

I have heard about other parents who have had their student sign a “health care proxy” form? Would this provide me with access to my child’s care?

No. The health care proxy is applicable only when patients lose the ability to make decisions for themselves. It is a legal document that gives another person the authority to make medical decisions for patients who cannot express their own wishes with regard to things like life support. It does not allow that person the right to access medical records.

Can’t my student sign a blanket permission that allows me to discuss medical issues with their clinician at any time?

No. Your child can only grant permission for us to speak with you about a specific episode of care. Once your student has granted this permission, we can discuss medical issues related to this episode of care, but we cannot speak with you about other illnesses or medical concerns.

These permission forms are valid for six months. If your student would like their provider to continue speaking with you about an ongoing medical issue or chronic condition, they will need to fill out a new form every six months.

Under what circumstances will you contact me about my student’s care?

We will contact you at any time your student asks us to so. Legally, we can share health information from parents only with a student’s direct request or permission. The only exception would be in certain life-threatening situations.

My student isn’t comfortable calling to make an appointment. Can I make an appointment for my child?

No. Only patients must make their own appointments. Your student can make an appointment by phone, in person, or online—once he has signed up for our online patient portal, HealthELife. Students can also be seen at our Urgent Care Service. Urgent Care is open from 8 a.m.–8 p.m. M–F, and 10 a.m.– 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

I’m worried that my student has a serious physical or mental health concern they are not addressing. What can I do?

While we can’t share information about individual patients, we are always available to listen to your concerns and provide advice about how to reach out to your child. For non-urgent health concerns, please feel free to contact Shawn Ferullo, M.D., chief of student health. For mental health concerns, call MIT Medical’s Student Mental Health and Counseling Services at 617-253-2916, and ask to speak with one of our clinicians. We can offer advice and give you information about appropriate campus resources that you can share with your son or daughter.

My student is unhappy about the care they received at MIT Medical. Who can I contact to complain?

You cannot complain on your student’s behalf. Because of patient privacy regulations, we cannot discuss any aspect of a patient’s care—including a complaint—with a third party. If your student is unhappy about the care they are receiving at MIT Medical, please encourage them to speak directly with the people involved in their care. And if the outcome of this discussion is not satisfactory, or if your child would rather discuss the issue with a third party, our patient relations coordinator may be able to help.

But again, please note that parents cannot contact the patient relation coordinator on a student’s behalf. This is also the case for billing concerns.