HIPAA Series: Why HIPAA Compliance Matters to Your Patients
Protecting patient information is of the utmost importance for healthcare organizations
If you are partially or fully responsible for managing a business in the healthcare industry, you are no doubt aware of the importance of protecting your patients’ information. HIPAA laws have serious implications when broken, but it is not just the legal aspect you should be concerned with.
Patients care about their information being safeguarded even when they don’t fully understand everything involved with HIPAA legislation. Here are 2 reasons why HIPAA compliance matters to your patients:
1. Patients want their medical history and problems to stay confidential.
Although patients may have close friends and/or family that they share other information with, they generally don’t want them knowing their full medical history.
Of course, an individual’s privacy is always important. However, patients may care even more about their records staying confidential when their medical history involves one or more of the following:
- Emotional or mental illnesses
- A history of abuse (whether physical, sexual, emotional, etc)
- Pregnancy, miscarriage, etc
- STI’s or other infections and/or communicable diseases that may impact relationships with others
- A history of drug/substance abuse or other addictions
- Diagnosis or symptoms of a terminal illness that hasn’t yet been disclosed to loved ones, professional colleagues, etc
A patient’s medical records being made known to others could result in damaged relationships, embarrassment to the patient, and/or in extreme cases even jeopardize someone’s safety (such as with instances where an individual experienced abuse).
2. Patients need to trust that any PHI (Protected Health Information) they provide will not be compromised.
While the medical history portion of a patient’s file needs to stay secure, so does any additional PHI they provide. This includes such things as a person’s date of birth, social security number, home and mailing address, phone number, marital status, payment information, and even employment information. If a staff member were to let it slip that a specific person is a patient, that could in itself be a violation of HIPAA legislation if the individual this is told to hasn’t been listed on the patient’s information release form.
When it comes to conversations between staff and other individuals, (including other patients that receive medical services,) patients should never have to worry that their name, information, or records will be mentioned.
Additionally, a patient should have peace of mind that any physical or electronic records are secure and will be kept that way. Both patients and medical providers have legitimate reasons to be concerned about this.
Data breach is more common than you may think
For instance, according to the website for the US Department of Health and Human Services- Office for Civil Rights, there are currently over 300 medical companies in the US alone being investigated for breaches reported in the last 2 years.
What may surprise you is that many of these breaches under investigation were not the result of information being intentionally released. For several of these, the type of breach is listed for reasons such as theft, hacking, and/or IT incidents, some of which compromised thousands of patients’ data.
It is possible in some of these cases that the individual(s) responsible for stealing information were after patients’ personal (not medical) information and they could even intend to scam individuals using data they accessed.
Unfortunately, it would be reasonable to conclude that in addition to known violations, there are likely many more healthcare companies who have experienced breaches that have not been reported.
Regardless of what information is accessed by unauthorized individuals or the exact reason why, patients definitely don’t want to worry about their information being ‘out there.’
3 Tips for Protecting Your Patients’ PHI
We discussed a couple of reasons why HIPAA matters to patients. Now you want to do your part to keep their protected health information safe. Here are 3 things you can do.
1.) Make sure any electronic records have maximum security.
This may involve not only encryption/passwords, but also things such as not leaving computers or devices that have access to patient info unattended or in an insecure location. You may also want to find a good IT company to work with and ensure your website/system is under a secure firewall to protect against hacks.
2.) Make sure patients are aware of their rights and that they understand HIPAA-related forms they sign.
Some healthcare facilities now have the ability to use electronic signatures for forms patients need to sign. If your company is one of them, you want to make sure that staff is adequately explaining to individuals what they are signing, instead of just saying, “alright, I need 3 signatures on the pad.”
Patients should never have to ask what they just signed. Additionally, they should be offered a physical copy of any HIPAA-related forms they sign electronically, especially the first time they are asked to sign it. (Of course, when using physical forms, you likewise want to make sure patients clearly comprehend what they are filling out.)
It’s important to have a legal HIPAA release form on file for patients to list physicians, family members, or other individuals they permit their information to be released to. Make sure they understand what this release form entails in terms of what information can be released, how it can be released, and to whom it can be released.
For example, you want patients to understand that by listing their doctors, you are able to send these physicians relevant records, or that by listing their spouse, you can speak with them on the phone about your patient’s test results, etc. If possible, it’s good to specify on the form itself how information can be released.
If patients don’t fully understand the role of a HIPAA release form they fill out, they may inadvertently give permission for you to release their information to someone they actually wouldn’t want to access it.
3.) Make sure staff is fully educated on HIPAA policies, and provide ongoing training and reminders.
Employees won’t follow HIPAA guidelines if they don’t thoroughly understand them and take them seriously. In order to properly train your staff, you will first need to make sure you completely understand how HIPAA laws affect your unique healthcare practice. It is also paramount to understand how HIPAA laws affect the types of technology solutions your organization uses, such as chat software. A personalized assessment with HIPAA-compliant chat specialists will help you better evaluate your HIPAA-compliance needs when it comes to messaging solutions.
By providing additional training to your employees from time to time, you can keep them updated on any changes to the HIPAA Privacy Rule that affect your company as well as remind employees of proper procedures. Companies also have the option to enroll employees in HIPAA training programs facilitated by third-party training services.
You’ll also want to make sure staff is doing their part to keep physical and electronic records secure and that they promote a work environment that protects patient information.
By staying informed, by educating your staff and patients, and by taking proper precautions, you can succeed in keeping your medical business HIPAA-compliant.