Employee Requirements for Disclosure of Medical Information

John is a 38-year-old small business employee with a severe food allergy to vanilla. Always striving to appear as normal as everyone else, it has been important to John since childhood that people not know of his allergy. Whether it be the embarrassment factor or just unwanted attention and paranoia from others knowing, it was John’s wish that only his immediate family members know of his condition. When he completed his job application some years ago, he did not include information about his circumstance, nor did he list his specific Doctor to contact in case of an allergy emergency. On John’s 38th birthday, his co-workers threw him a small surprise gathering in the lounge, complete with a customized cake for the occasion. Obviously, the woman who made the cake had no idea of his vanilla allergy and she didn’t think to mention that she had used vanilla extract to bake it. After all, such an ingredient is fairly common in desserts. John had the honorary first cut piece, and within seconds, he was on the floor and gasping for air. As he lay on the floor with his airway passage closing by the second, he was unable to tell his anyone that his emergency kit for this allergy was in his top desk drawer. His medicating savior was only feet away, but because he had kept his allergy a secret, John had put himself in a situation that could easily have cost him his life.

Can an employer require each employee to list the name of his or her doctor and a list of medications taken in case of a personal or workplace emergency?

Generally speaking, it is in the best interest of the employer to limit requests for emergency contact information and other medical information. It is wise to limit such requests to a name and a telephone number of that emergency contact person, as well as the name and telephone number of the employee’s doctor. While most employees do not mind listing an emergency contact name and number, there are some who do not wish to provide their employer with a doctor’s name and number. In such a case, the employer should respect the decision of the employee not to disclose personal medical information and should note it on emergency contact forms.

In a scenario like John’s where severe consequences of secrecy can quickly come into play, one would think that the he would want at least one person to know where his medication was in the event that his life was on the line. However, providing such information should be voluntary for the employee. It is actually a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act’s prohibition on health inquiries to require or even request that an employee provide a list of medications taken. A personal inquiry such as this could result in a disability discrimination charge. In requesting any type of emergency contact information, the employer should assure employees that such data will be kept confidential and will be disclosed and/or used only on a strict need-to-know basis.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has a website that provides useful information to employers with disabled employees. In the event of a workplace evacuation such disabled employees may need assistance. The document entitled “Fact Sheet on Obtaining and Using Employee Medical Information as Part of Emergency Evacuation Procedures” contains applicable information for disabled circumstances and is available at www.eeoc.gov/facts/evacuation.html. The site provides recommendations on how to identify such employees, the kinds of information that may be requested from them, and how that personal information can be used and shared.

A unique and discrete way to care for employees with special needs in a respectful and professional manner is to encourage them to participate in a medical alert jewelry program. These programs provide participants with an engraved piece of jewelry, usually a bracelet, that states certain medical information about the employee. Notification services are often used along with these jewelry programs in that some services provide a phone number and/or a web site that allows access to the participant’s personal medical information by certified emergency responders only. Either of these two options could be a way to help your employees keep their wishes of confidentiality where concerned with their medical needs. In addition, some employers could even consider offering programs such as these as an exceptional employee benefit.