(If you came here looking for just specific elements to include in your client consent form, download our checklist here.)
Client consent, also known as a client release of information (ROI), is an essential part of the Human Services data collection process. To provide a quick definition, client consent is the data subject’s agreement to the collection of their personal information and their authorization to use or disclose this data in certain ways. Often, client consent authorizes a service provider to release the client’s personal information to another, or multiple, providers and/or community sectors (i.e., homeless service providers, legal consultants, law enforcement, hospital staff, mental health therapists, program auditors, etc.).
As such, client consent is often the launch pad for so much of the work we do to effectively deliver and coordinate social services—from enabling centralized intake systems, to establishing trust between client and provider, all the way to evaluating care systems to meet funder requirements.
With this level of importance, it’s surprising there aren’t more resources available for writing a flawless client consent form. How do you make sure you’re covering all your bases? How do you make sure the client understands what they’re signing?
We’ve compared notes from our own in-house Human Services experience and privacy expertise, multiple client release forms around the industry, and some guidelines found online (all of which are listed at the end of this article).
Through our research and years of experience, we’ve found 6 best practices which apply to client consent forms for any sector of the Human Services industry:
- Be clear and specific
- Provide a list of partner providers
- Demonstrate value of participation
- Ensure comprehension of client consent form
- Take your commitments seriously
- Go digital with client release forms
Whether you’re writing a client release form for the first time or wondering if your current form is up to par, review these best practices to make sure your client release is the very best it can be.
Disclaimer: While our CIPP-certified Director of Privacy and Customer Advocacy, Jeff Ugai, thoroughly reviewed and approved this article, keep in mind it describes general principles and is for informational purposes only. It is neither legal advice nor a substitute for the advice of an attorney licensed in your state.
1. Be Clear and Specific
When requesting permission to share confidential information, it’s best to cover your bases and be specific. Make it as easy as possible for the client to understand exactly:
- What information you will collect. Explain in the clearest terms possible what client information you will collect and your purposes for doing so.
- Who will disclose the information. Identify the specific names or classes of persons, or types of providers, who will be releasing the client’s information.
- Who will receive the information. Identify the specific names or classes of persons, or types of providers, who will be receiving the client’s released information.
- Which information will be shared. List the specific types of client information which will be shared, ranging from demographic data to medical information to service transactions (see the next section for details on how to break this down).
- How the information will be shared. Provide a brief overview of how this information will be transferred (i.e. your data system), the security measures you’ve taken, and the privacy policies in place.
- Why the information is being shared. Explain the purpose for which you are collecting, storing, using, and sharing information. Be specific about how sharing information will benefit the client, as well as the quality of the care system as a whole (more details on this in the the fourth best practice).
Keep in mind that certain funding sources and service types may require the inclusion of specific terms or content. For example, a client consent form regarding domestic violence services may require more specificity than a client consent form regarding homeless services.
2. Provide a List of Partner Providers
When sharing information outside of your organization, consider making available a list of partnering providers and agencies. Below are a few options for this best practice:
- Include the list with your form. Make it easy for the client to sign off on all providers listed, or to select specific providers. You could do this by having the following checkboxes (or spaces for initials) at the top:
- I give my permission for this provider to share my approved information with all participating providers listed below.
- I give my permission for this provider to share my approved information with only the service providers I have selected below
- Publish list on your website. If the list of partner providers is continually changing, you may want to keep this list on your website so it’s easy to update, as opposed to printing out a new list for the form each time. If you do this, include a link to the list in your client release form.
- Have separate printed copies available. Make a note in the release of information form that a list of participating providers is available upon request. Then be sure to have a printed copy of this list on hand. Keep in mind that if any changes are made to this list, you will need to print new copies; however, this may be less of a hassle than printing new copies to attach to each ROI form.
3. Demonstrate Value of Participation
If the client agrees to have their information shared, there is both immediate and long-term value for them. Outlining those benefits will increase your chances of having the client sign the release.
Regarding immediate value, explain that if the client anticipates going to multiple providers for services, they will be asked the same basic questions each time. However, participation can reduce the time the client spends answering the same questions about their situation, allowing the provider to spend more time focusing on the client’s case. Sharing information will also improve the quality and coordination of care among providers, therefore helping the client receive the services they need.
Regarding long-term value, explain that shared information will be used to help evaluate the quality of social services, including:
- Improvement of social services
- Enabling better access to these services, and
- Ensuring funder requirements are met so that these services continue to receive funding
4. Ensure Comprehension of Client Consent Form
At the time that the client consent form is presented to a client, they are often in distress and overwhelmed. It’s important that you make it as easy as possible for the client to read and understand what they are authorizing.
There are 3 points to consider here:
- Use intuitive formatting. Client release forms should not be blocks of text. Include subheadings, bullet points, bold text, and tables as appropriate to make the form easier for the client to read. Organize the form so that the information flows and makes sense to the client.
- Use plain language. Client release forms should be written in plain language, minimizing jargon. Take a step back and write for the average person who isn’t immersed in social services everyday.
- Accommodate language or literacy barriers. Language and/or illiteracy should not be a barrier to a client’s privacy rights. Make your client consent form available in various languages common to your community, and have these copies readily available. If you have a client who is illiterate, read the form aloud along with the client to confirm they understand the release.
5. Take Your Commitments Seriously
Although directed at the client, the release of information form contains mutual agreements and obligations for both the data subject (client) and the collecting organization.
- Strictly adhere to the terms. Given the reliance on self-reported data, client trust in the system is critical for a successful client management system. All staff working with client data must understand the commitments made under the release and that client records are always collected, used, shared, stored, and destroyed as prescribed. In certain cases, violations of privacy promises may expose organizations to legal liability.
- Maintain an archive. Policies and procedures inevitably change and evolve—and likewise, even a well-written client release form requires revision from time to time. Maintaining a well-organized archive of past releases will allow you to quickly discern what release terms apply to a particular record.
- Be consistent. Regularly review privacy policies—including the release of information form—with end users to make sure everyone’s on the same page. This helps to ensure the ROI is explained and collected in a consistent manner across all participating organizations.
6. Go Digital with Client Releases
More and more businesses are transitioning to electronic systems to create and/or store records, and Human Services is no exception. There are many benefits to maintaining client releases and other client records within an electronic system; we’ve listed a few of them below. Whether your agency decides to go paperless, or use a combination of paper and electronic methods to handle client records, here are some reasons to make the switch.
- Eliminate the need to track down documents. When all your client records are stored in an electronic system, you don’t need to worry about losing or tracking down paperwork. You know where everything is, in one central location, making it quicker and easier to check, retrieve, and update documents. You can still use a paper form if it’s easier for your agency, or if the client requests paper—but you can then scan the form and attach it to the client record, and destroy the paper copy once the form is secure in your system.
- Reduce risk of incomplete files. When you have clients complete release forms electronically, you can set up your client management system to alert you if a required field hasn’t been filled. This will ensure your client release forms are always complete, saving both you and your client time, and enabling you to disclose information in a timely manner.
- Build trust. A John Hopkins study particular to paperless hospitals showed that patients appear safer when their information is gathered and stored on computers rather than on paper. In Human Services, we’ve seen the same results. Client paperwork becomes more of a collaborative process when done on a computer, especially on a mobile device. Having a client review and electronically sign a release form on a computer requires the process to be done together, which builds trust between you and your client.
NOTE: If you decide to go paperless to any extent, make sure you can still produce paper copies in case a client requests a hard copy.
As Human Services professionals, we’re all committed to the well-being of our clients—including their privacy. Client data is necessary for achieving our goals in service efficiency, program evaluation, and funding. But we never want to lose focus on the client and our commitment to addressing their needs and protecting their privacy along the way.
While a clear, transparent, and consistent client release form is one way to demonstrate that commitment, there’s more to client releases and privacy than space allows in this article. Here are a couple ways you can dive a little deeper:
- Download the client consent form checklist to make sure you’re covering all your bases.
- Watch the webinar recording, “Data Privacy 101 for Human Services.”
- Watch the webinar recording, “How to Set Up HMIS Privacy Policies.”
- ”Management Practices for the Release of Information” (The American Health Information Management Association)
- “Informed Consent Form Information” (The American Osteopathic Academy of Addiction Medicine)
- ”Release of Confidential Information Best Practices” (Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence)
- ”King County HMIS Client Consent for Data Collection and Release of Information” (Bitfocus, King County HMIS)
- ”HMIS Client Consent Form: Release of Information Sample” (HUD, Iowa Statewide HMIS)
- ”HMIS Client Consent Form: Universal Consent Sample” (HUD, Austin HMIS)
- A Realistic Transition Toward the “Paperless” Medical Practice (Lanier Worldwide, Inc.)
- “In New York, a Social Services Department Aims to Go Paperless” (GCN)
- “Statewide Study Confirms ‘Paperless’ Hospitals Are Better for Patients” (John Hopkins Medicine)