When communicating about patients in a general way, stay general.

We received another HIPAA-related inquiry from a dentist, different from the one received last week. In this inquiry, the dentist asked:

What does HIPAA say about sending "thank yous" to our patients for their referring others to our practice? Do such "thank yous" violate HIPAA?

The answer is that HIPAA doesn't address such thank you letters, as long as the letters are general in nature (e.g., "Thank you for referring Mrs. Wilson to our practice..."), and avoids any reference to Mrs. Wilson's oral health condition (e.g., "Thank you for referring Mrs. Wilson to our practice. Her gingivitis is well-advanced, but with proper treatment it can be brought under control..." -- that would be a HIPAA violation).

HIPAA protects personal health information, which is defined as information that links the patient's identity with their health condition, treatment for their condition, or how they pay for their treatment. So, any references to the person's oral health condition, or treatment (e.g., "...We think the root canal we have scheduled for Mr. Smith will work wonders...") is what HIPAA would prohibit.

In short, a letter which says "Thank you for referring Mrs. Wilson to our practice. We greatly appreciate the confidence you've shown in our care for your oral health needs...," is entirely appropriate, and not a violation of HIPAA.