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Am I legally responsible in telling my patient's HIV status to his intimate significant other?
Jan 1, 2013

I work in a hospital, and I have the privilege of meeting all sorts of people, including those infected with HIV. Some are newly diagnosed and refuses to tell their spouse. As a healthcare professional, it is my duty to protect my patient's rights. Am I legally obligated to tell the spouse or intimate significant other? (I know if she takes him to court, he may be charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon) Will his healthcare providers be charged with accessory to his crime? -Texas Nurse

Response from Ms. Douaihy

Dear Writer,

You inquire specifically whether 1) as a health care professional in Texas you are obligated to notify an HIV-positive patient's partner of your patient's HIV status, and 2) whether you may be held criminally liable if you fail to notify such partner of the same.

While I do not practice law in the state of Texas, my answer to both of your questions is a general "no." The Texas statute regarding partner notification ("Texas Health & Safety Code - Section 81.051") explains the state's obligation to create "partner notification programs." These partner notification programs are set up and run by Texas state agencies. These programs establish a comprehensive system for reporting and managing information related to communicable diseases in Texas. In an instance where notification to a partner of an HIV positive person is authorized, only an employee of one of these partner notification programs shall make the notification. So to answer your question, you are not mandated to directly notify your patients' partners of anything; rather, if partner notification of the possibility of HIV transmission is statutorily warranted, the health care professional is to inform a partner notification program. The statute also explains that a health care professional is immune from civil or criminal liability for failure to make notification to a partner notification program.

I strongly advise you to talk to your Hospital supervisory staff or State Department of Health officials to clarify specific reporting procedure to a notification program if/when partner notification is warranted. Indeed, as a health care professional, you have a duty under the federal privacy law and Texas state confidentiality law to maintain the confidentiality of your patients with respect to their HIV status and personal medical information. In fact, if you impermissibly disclose your patient's confidential HIV-related information to a third party you may be held civilly liable for such breach. I direct you to the links below for more information about Texas's partner notification laws and HIV confidentiality laws.

Thank you for writing in to thebody.com's Legal Forum.

Texas Department of State Health Services



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