Reconciling Privacy Laws and Public Health Surveillance

Addressing legal areas related to the interpretation of health information privacy rules for public health practice and research

From January 2007 through May 2008, the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists provided guidance to help public health practitioners understand how privacy laws at the federal, state and local level, affect—and in some cases impede—the performance of essential public health activities, such as disease surveillance and investigation. The council focused on three key legal areas: the distinction between public health research and practice, access to school health data and surveillance to detect bioterrorist attacks.

Key Results: As the result of this project, the council:

  • Identified seven legislative and policy solutions for addressing barriers to the collection of student health information created by the federal Department of Education's Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
  • Proposed and drafted a legislative amendment to FERPA that would give educational institutions the authority to disclose individually identifiable health information to public health authorities.
  • Prepared a legal memorandum that concluded that the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy Rule does not restrict the government from collecting health information from emergency rooms and other sources via an electronic surveillance system to protect national security.