A doctor will usually be willing to talk with a patient's spouse about her care, and often to adult children of a single elder, but not to any other relative.
In truth, all of these disclosures could be made, based on the language contained in the Final Privacy Rule that controls the release of medical information:
"Limited uses and disclosures when the individual is not present. If the individual is not present for, or the opportunity to agree or object to the use or disclosure cannot practicably be provided because of the individual's incapacity or an emergency circumstance, the covered entity may, in the exercise of professional judgment, determine whether the disclosure is in the best interests of the individual and, if so, disclose only the protected health information that is directly relevant to the person's involvement with the individual's health care. A covered entity may use professional judgment and its experience with common practice to make reasonable inferences of the individual's best interest in allowing a person to act on behalf of the individual to pick up filled prescriptions, medical supplies, X-rays, or other similar forms of protected health information." 42 CFR 164.510(b)(3)
But hospitals and physicians have been so shell-shocked by the shrill warnings about forbidden disclosures and the hefty penalties that can apply that none of them dare rely on language like this to disclosure medical information without an authorization. Thus, in just about every case, an authorization is needed.
At his law firm's site, Jack Bolling of Milford, Michigan offers a humorous story from his own experience.
We offer a simple HIPAA authorization form, for use by anyone who wants to plan ahead in case of emergency. While it is not guaranteed that it will be accepted everywhere, since each health facility seems to operate under its own rules, it has been drafted with the requirements of the HIPAA Final Privacy Rule in mind, and it offers the best chance for the parent of a young adult, the friend of a single person, or a relative of a vulnerable elder to get the needed information about his or her medical condition in the event of injury or illness.