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I was excused from an exam on the basis of a doctor's note and after the exam took place my professor reversed his decision, saying that he does not have adequate information to excuse me and needs proof of a physical exam and treatment plan. Legally, can a university professor ask for private information?

This is taking place in Texas at a private university.

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  • What added details or clarity is wanted here? I don't see any additional details as being needed. Dec 11, 2021 at 3:11
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    Although not required, better answers can be given if you specify the jurisdiction, that is the country, and if in a federal country such as Canada, the US, or India the state or province. Dec 11, 2021 at 3:13
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    What is the professor asking for? The content of the physical exam and treatment plan, or a confirmation that a physical exam did take place and that the outcome was severe enough to cause a treatment plan?
    – o.m.
    Dec 11, 2021 at 6:12
  • @o.m. A description of the treatment plan (surgery, medication etc) and records of a physical exam
    – Silver54
    Dec 11, 2021 at 6:20
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    @Silver54, what I wondered was if the professor would be satisfied with records that there was a physical exam, and that prescription medication was prescribed? As opposed to "um, yeah, take two aspirin and come back day after tomorrow if it isn't better."
    – o.m.
    Dec 11, 2021 at 6:45

2 Answers 2

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Yes.

HIPPA does not apply to exchanges of information between professors and students, it only governs disclosures of medical information by medical providers and insurance companies.

Educational privacy laws might prohibit the professor from sharing that information with someone outside the educational institution, but that is a different question entirely, than whether this information can be requested from a student.

If you have a disagreement with the professor's decision, your remedy would be to ask the department chair, or the dean with jurisdiction over that professor, or provost (a.k.a. the chief academic officer) at the institution to reconsider this decision (ordinarily, in that order).

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  • Yes. I did correspond with the provost's assistant, who told me professors are not allowed to ask for medical records, a doctor's note should be sufficient. In this case, is it illegal for a professor to ask for medical records?
    – Silver54
    Dec 11, 2021 at 3:47
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    @Silver54 In that case, you can use the Provost's ruling, to which the professor is required to abide, to get the professor to change his decision. It isn't a matter of legality, it is a matter of college policy.
    – ohwilleke
    Dec 11, 2021 at 3:48
  • The Provost's official ruling was to not overturn the professor's decision and he hasn't explained why. In this case, should I hire an attorney?
    – Silver54
    Dec 11, 2021 at 3:52
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    I don't think you should be focusing on legal/illegal, it is better to focus on whether the instructor is following university policy. If you can't find published policy, then you can write and ask what the policy is. / Sounds like the assistant provost gave you what you need, but verbally. It would be good to follow up and get that in an email. Someone may ask you if you know why the instructor suddenly changed their position. Have you asked the instructor? Have you had a dialogue? Always follow up from live dialogues with email notes of what was communicated. Dec 12, 2021 at 7:00
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    This answer focuses on the lawfulness of requesting medical records. What about the bait-and-switch nature of the incident? That is, the student did not take the exam because the professor told the student that the student was excused, and then changed his mind after the exam had taken place, when it was too late for the student to comply with the newly established rejection of the medical excuse.
    – phoog
    Dec 12, 2021 at 10:29
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In my experience, universities in the US generally publish a policy about presenting doctor's notes, absences, etc., and also what procedure a student should pursue to dispute an instructor's decision. It would be helpful to cite the policy when filing a dispute or complaint. Show that the instructor didn't follow the official policy.

In practice, the formal dispute procedure might be a bit slow; you might be able to resolve this quicker by contacting something like an office of undergraduate studies (or graduate studies).

A paper trail would be helpful. However, not having a paper trail does not necessarily ruin your chances of a successful dispute or complaint.

Often the best result is obtained by first talking with an administrator by phone and then following up by email. In the phone call, you want to come across as rational, reasonable, good listener, presenting your concern clearly and succinctly (but don't leave out any important details). Your follow-up email should include the paper trail (could involve some emails and/or some screenshots from the course management system).

Also, the best result is often obtained by communicating with a general university administrator rather than with a specific department (unless of course the published policy directs you to bring it up with the department).

Often a university's published procedure will say that the student should try to resolve a dispute directly with the instructor first, before filing a complaint or appeal. Usually this just means you have to make a reasonable effort before going higher.

There are two ways to dispute what happened -- focus on the exam itself, or focus on the overall course grade. I don't know which would make more sense for you.

The university policy should give you an idea whether the instructor's request is reasonable in requiring more details from the medical provider.

Keep a careful log of all phone calls.

If you find that university policy allows the instructor to (a) do a 180, and (b) require more details from the medical provider, then I hope the provider will give you a more detailed letter.

Often, the provider will be happy for you to draft the follow-up letter, to be used as a starting point. At the very least, I suggest you pass on to the provider the university's instructions.

A patient portal often makes this type of communication with the provider more efficient.

There is a special situation which, if it applies to your case, might give you more leverage. If you have disclosed a disability to the university, then special procedures and self-advocacy techniques may be applicable.

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  • I go to Rice University and couldn't find anything about such a policy online. If there is no written policy, can the University make rules ad hoc?
    – Silver54
    Dec 12, 2021 at 7:44
  • maybe start here and look at the faq: dou.rice.edu/committee-examinations-and-standing / You might want to explain that you weren't aware of this policy until now, and you communicated with your instructor about the problem, and if your instructor had advised you to address the committee, you would have. / Also if you can, get a more detailed letter from your medical provider. But I wouldn't bring this up until you have a more detailed letter actually in hand. Dec 12, 2021 at 8:27
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    I have gone through the entire internal process. Professor told me to talk to department head, who did not oveturn and told me to talk to the Dean of the school, who did not overturn and told me to talk to the EX&S (who you've linked). They told me they don't handle such cases as mine and to contact the Provost. Received an email from the Provost telling me he will not overturn (without explanation). Then called the Provost's assistant who told me that professors are not allowed to ask for medical records, only doctor's note. I've also written to the President who hasn't replied.
    – Silver54
    Dec 12, 2021 at 8:46

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