June 14, 2007

Panel Highlights Misunderstandings in Privacy Laws

An investigation into the Virginia Tech shooting found that confusion and uncertainty about privacy laws and regulations impede appropriate information sharing. The panel appointed by President Bush concluded that education officials, healthcare providers, law enforcement personnel, and others are not fully informed about when they can share critical information on persons who are likely to be a danger to self or others, and the resulting confusion may chill legitimate information sharing. In short, officials are often unaware that exceptions to privacy laws permit disclosures when an individual poses a safety threat. (HHS Report via Inside Higher Ed.)

Ombuds are uniquely positioned to hear from and about distressed individuals, and should therefore be especially knowledgeable about exceptions to privacy rules. Moreover, ombuds should reinforce that their confidentiality is similarly limited.

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