Health Confidential

My sister and I are concerned about my mom’s health, but she’s very private. Is there a polite way to ask an aging parent to share health information with the family?

A It’s a very important question for many reasons. Do you want to know so you can help? Are you concerned about financial resources that might be needed to treat
a condition or allow mom to remain in her home? Is her memory slipping and you worry she may not remember important instruction from the doctor? Or perhaps you are documenting your family health history because it may affect your own?

Any of these is a legitimate reason for inquiring about your mother’s health and overall medical care. Problem is, for many years people have inquired for less savory reasons and this has led to strict privacy laws for medical practices, hospitals and insurance companies. Federal law, called HIPAA (Health Information Portability and Accountability Act of 1996), established “PHI,” Protected Health Information standards that make sharing information with anyone other than the patient a crime. The general idea is that you are the owner of your PHI and only you can decide who can know it.

If you want your family to have access, you sign an Authorization to Release Medical Information with your provider, or you have a legally valid Durable Power of Attorney
(DPOA) for Healthcare, or similar document (they vary by state) that allows a surrogate to know your medical situation.

This should give you a few clues on how to approach your mom:

  • Make it a family project to review important documents together. PAF can help you get the forms you need.
  • If she has an advance directive for DPOA for healthcare, and you are named as an agent, make sure you have a copy. Read it to see if your authority takes effect only on her incapacity.
  • Make your request about you (I need to complete a health questionnaire about our family health history) and not about her (older adults need to feel independent).
  • Don’t force it or insist. Assure your mom you respect her privacy, and you want to be ready in case of an emergency. It’s a legitimate request, so treat it with the legitimate respect it deserves.

Sources: “Health Information Privacy” by U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services at

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