How Does HIPAA Protect Patients?

Jack Berberian

Most patients are reminded of HIPAA – the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act – when they have to sign a form about it. Since this typically takes place only when going to a new doctor, it’s easy for people to forget about. Just what is HIPAA, and how does it protect patients?

The Act Lets You Designate Who Can Speak For You
This is very important where certain medical decisions are concerned. You can designate one or more people to make decisions for you if you’re incapacitated. There’s no need to choose a specific person, such as a close relative. Anyone you have not named doesn’t get to make decisions for you. Before HIPAA, state laws determined who could make important medical decisions, and overriding these took filing special paperwork. HIPAA makes it easy to do this. You still need to make a record of your choice before becoming incapacitated, though – if something happens to you before you’ve made a designation, other regulations still apply.

You Choose Who Gets Access to Your Information
While you may only want one or two people to actually be able to make decisions for you, it might be good to allow more to have access to your medical data. This will allow for discussion amongst family members or other responsible parties.
This choice also applies to records requests from other sources, such as medical centers or specific doctors. It used to be that any doctor could contact your other health care providers and get your files. Now, you can pick which ones gain access if you’d like to cut someone – such as a doctor who you weren’t satisfied with – out of the loop.

You Can Designate Which Parts of Your Files May be Shared
The most common example of this is that you can choose to keep your STD status or other such issues secret while allowing less sensitive information to be passed on. You may find that it’s a good idea to keep other data under wraps, too. For example, if a relative you authorized to read your information would bother you about certain health conditions – such as your blood sugar levels – you can avoid the nagging by having that data held back.

You Now Have the Right to Your Medical Files
For those over a certain age, this is a very big deal. They remember when hospitals and other health care providers acted like your own information was their top-secret data. HIPAA eliminates this outrage. It forces providers to deliver your files to you upon demand.
The one catch is that providers may charge you for your copy of your files. This is justified by the fact that it takes time to copy things, and since paid labor is involved, that time is indeed money. If your files are extensive, the cost of paper and ink are also factors. That said, some institutions charge far more than you might expect, so be ready for that.

HIPAA Demands Careful Precautions Against Data Leaks
This is likely the most well-known aspect of HIPAA, especially among health care providers. It mandates that fairly extreme measures be taken to keep your information private. Since this information can be used for identity theft as well as general snooping, this is very important.
Under HIPAA, your files must be stored securely while in use. Once you stop going to a particular provider and the office decides to discard your files, it must use secure methods to destroy them. Just throwing them away is not allowed and would result in heavy fines.

These are just some of the many ways HIPAA protects patients. As you can see, it is one of the rare laws that delivers on its promise.

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