The health insurance portability and accountability act, or HIPAA, is a federal law that took action in 1996. The purpose of this law is to regulate and standardize the process of handling sensitive patient information. The United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released the HIPAA Privacy Rule to highlight the requirements of patient privacy protection.
Ever since the start of the COVID pandemic, the use of telehealth services has bloomed. As a result, many people started debating whether these communication channels protect patient privacy. While the system is not perfect at the moment, there is some real progress that’s being made to adhere to HIPAA rules.
This article will cover the different aspects of healthcare privacy in the United States, including the HIPAA rules.
Why is HIPAA Important for Patients?
The main goal set by HIPAA is to protect patients. Differently put, the guidelines of HIPAA ensure that the medical staff, health plans, and other related entities are keeping patient personal information safe and secure.
HIPAA is important for patients because it:
- Informs patients about where their information might be used
- Provides patients with more control over their personal information
- Gives patients the right to obtain and examine a copy of their health records. Patients can also ask for corrections.
- Creates boundaries for the use and disclosure of health records
- Holds violators accountable. This can translate to civil or criminal penalties
- Aids with establishing appropriate safeguards by healthcare providers
While no healthcare organization would deliberately leak sensitive information about patients, HIPAA adds a legal safeguard to this process instead of relying on moral principles.
Who needs to comply with HIPAA?
HIPAA regulations need to be followed by doctors, nurses, medical assistants, and other healthcare providers.
Let us break down this list:
Healthcare providers – All elements working close to patients must follow HIPAA regulations and HIPAA transactions rule.
Some of these transactions may include:
- Benefit eligibility inquiries
- Referral authorization requests
Health plans – Healthcare insurers must also comply with HIPAA regulations. This applies to health maintenance organizations (HMOs), Medicare, and Medicaid insurers.
Business associates – This list includes any person or organization that uses individually identifiable information about patients.
The rights preserved by HIPAA
HIPAA ensures that the following patient information gets protected:
- Any input of information in medical records by a physician, nurse, or other staff members
- Private conversation with healthcare providers
- Billing information that includes personal data
- Data stored in the computer system of insurers
Note that this list is not comprehensive. Other types of information also follow HIPAA regulations, which help with protecting sensitive information and prevent leaks.
If you have questions about specific HIPAA regulations, do not hesitate to contact us via this link (insert link of the other article).
Telemedicine and HIPAA compliance
For telehealth services to comply with HIPAA, they need to place several safeguards within their systems.
Most of these services focus on limiting the use and disclosure of patient information. There are also several procedures that limit the number of people who have access to patient information. What is most important, however, is training employees is become aware of HIPAA regulations and how to respect them.
HIPAA regulation exemptions
Despite the broad spectrum of HIPAA regulations, there are surprisingly many organizations that possess sensitive health information but are not required to follow HIPAA rules.
Such examples include:
- Life insurers
- Workers compensation carriers
- Most schools
- School districts
- Many state agencies (e.g., child protective services)
- Most law enforcement agencies
- Many municipal offices
Safeguards to protect personal information of patients
The following sections will detail some of the measures we take to guarantee the safety of your personal information:
A few examples of administrative safeguards include:
Acceptable use policies – Training employees to understand their access rights and responsibilities when dealing with patient information.
Sanction policies – Disciplinary measures and sanctions for employees who violate these policies.
Information access policies – Limit access to health records, computer workstations, and transactions to only authorized personnel.
Security awareness training – Training employees about the importance of complying with HIPAA regulations. This also includes training about computer log-in monitoring, software updates, and password guard keeping.
Contingency planning – Policies, preparations, and procedures to respond in the case of a leakage.
To protect the personal health information of patients, medical facilities need to use appropriate software and equipment. Furthermore, many organizations limit access to patient data through technical safeguards. This serves to reinforce the administrative policies covered above.
Encrypting personal information when using, restoring, backing up, or transferring personal information is also a pillar of technical safeguards.
The final technical safeguard that all healthcare parties should implement is destroying the personal health information of patients when it is no longer useful.
Physical safeguards focus on protecting the location where patient information is stored. This becomes even more important with telehealth services as the information might be located on offshore servers.
How do authorities discover HIPAA violations
Many times, HIPAA violations may fly under the radar without being detected. However, healthcare providers need to keep in mind that the longer the violation lasts, the more severe the penalty is. In other words, the duration of the violation is proportional to the chosen penalty.
Therefore, healthcare facilities should do everything in their power to perform regular HIPAA compliance reviews and enroll employees in training programs.
Generally speaking, authorities can discover HIPAA violations in one of three ways:
- Investigations conducted by the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) into a data breach
- Investigations into complaints about business associates
- HIPAA compliance audits
HIPAA regulations serve to protect the sensitive information of patients. These regulations mandate healthcare providers and related entities to implement safeguard measures that protect personally identifiable data from getting leaked.
Hopefully, this article managed to highlight healthcare privacy in the US and the laws that ensure its protection.