Privacy and STI testing — who will know my results?

Originally Published: August 30, 2013
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Dear Alice,

I have been thinking about getting tested for STIs for a while now but have been concerned with medical privacy policy. From the research I have done, I have not been able to find if I tested positive for a STI would I be refered to in name as a 'risk to public safety' or simply as a statistic. I know that this will be placed in my medical records and documented for the rest of my life. Will I have a label attached to my name for the rest of my life? Who will be notified if I do test positive for something like Syphilis or Herpes?

Thanks a lot, —Nervous

Dear Nervous,

Many people have wondered about their level of privacy with regards to STI test results. A patient’s test results for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV/AIDS are protected under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA). HIPPA sets limits over who can access your health information — whether it’s electronic, written, or oral. HIPAA regulates covered entities such as health plans, health care providers, and clearinghouses. Different states have other policies that further protect a patient’s privacy. For example, in New York, Article 27-F of NYS Public Health Law requires a signed release form from a patient in order to disclose any information pertaining to individuals who have been tested, exposed, infected with, or treated for HIV/AIDS-related illnesses.

People who test positive for STIs or HIV/AIDS are reported to the state and local health department for the purposes of public health surveillance. At the state level, only public health personnel have access to this information to understand rates of HIV in the state. The state health department then removes personal information about you to share with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), so they can track national public health trends. This information is not shared with anyone else.

There are two options for HIV testing — confidential and anonymous. Most states offer both; however, some states only offer confidential testing services. Confidential testing means that your results are connected to your name — other identifying information will go into your medical record and may be shared with your health care provider and insurance company.  However, you are protected by state and federal privacy laws and your name cannot be released without your permission. An insurance company should not drop you for being tested for HIV or testing positive for HIV. Anonymous testing means that your name is not connected to your results. When you take an anonymous HIV test, you get a unique identifier that allows you to get your test results. It should be noted that not all HIV testing sites are bound by HIPAA regulations, so be sure to check beforehand.

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services has more information regarding confidential versus anonymous HIV testing if you have further questions. You can also contact your local health department or call 1-800-CDC-INFO (800-232-4636) to learn more about the confidential and anonymous STI test sites in your area. If you’re a Columbia student on the Morningside campus, the Gay Health Advocacy Project is a fantastic resource for testing and information about HIV/AIDS. They also have free and confidential drop-in HIV testing hours. In addition, you can contact Medical Services on the Morningside campus or Student Health at the Medical Center to get tested for STIs in a confidential environment. If you’ve been raped, molested, or sexually assaulted, don’t hesitate to reach out to Columbia’s Sexual Violence Response team, as well as Counseling and Psychological Services on the Morningside campus and Mental Health Services at the Medical Center for support.

Hope this helps you make a decision to get tested!

Alice