The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act was introduced in 1996, and since then has seen many updates. But even though these updates often directly impact patients and how they are cared for, many will not be able to answer the following: Why is HIPAA important to patients? Why should patients know their rights under HIPAA? We will discuss both questions here.
HIPAA has five Titles, each with a different focus within the health industry. The Titles are as follows:
- Title I: Health Care Access, Portability, and Renewability
- Title II: Preventing Health Care Fraud and Abuse; Administrative Simplification; Medical Liability Reform
- Title III: Tax-related health provisions governing medical savings accounts
- Title IV: Application and enforcement of group health insurance requirements
- Title V: Revenue offset governing tax deductions for employers.
Clearly, most of these Titles are related to insurance and tax matters. These are still important for individuals – Title I, for example, addressed the issue of “job lock”, which made it difficult for employees to leave jobs without also losing their health insurance. By expanding access to health insurance, HIPAA had many important impacts on individuals.
But what about within a healthcare setting? Why is HIPAA important for patients? When answering this, we will primarily consider Title II, which relates to patient privacy and the safeguarding of health data.
HIPAA defines “Protected Health Information” as data that relates to the past, present, or future physical or mental condition of a patient that contains individually-identifiable information. Given the sensitive nature of this data, much of HIPAA is dedicated to ensuring that it is not used inappropriately.
One of the main ways in which HIPAA protects patients is by stipulating when and how PHI can be used. This appropriate use and disclosure are laid out in the HIPAA Privacy Rule. In essence, the Rule states that PHI should only be disclosed where it is necessary for a healthcare-related transaction, and only the information needed to carry out that transaction should be disclosed.
But why is patient privacy important? Unfortunately, even today, medical conditions can come with a lot of discrimination and stigma. If an employer learns that an employee is seriously ill, for example, they may overlook them for promotion or even try to fire them. Socially, some diseases or conditions are still taboo. It is important, then, that patients have the right to privacy and to disclose their health status where they see fit.
The HIPAA Security Rule dictates how this PHI should be protected by stipulating a minimum set of administrative, technical, and physical safeguards that must be in place. The nature of PHI – which can include names, Social Security Numbers, bank details etc. – means that it can fetch high prices on the black market. The information can be used to create false identities, threatening a patient’s financial security and potentially making it difficult for them to obtain insurance or credit in the future. It is, therefore, important that PHI is adequately protected.
HIPAA is also important for patients as it gives them more autonomy over their data. The Breach Notification Rule requires that all patients who have been affected by a data breach are told in a timely manner, allowing them to protect themselves against harm.
Patients may also access their medical records and request changes if they believe that aspects are inaccurate. Access to medical records also means that they can seek second opinions or change service providers if they so wish.
Why is HIPAA important to patients? By protecting their health information and granting them greater autonomy over their health data, HIPAA can prevent patient data from being stolen and misused, while also preserving their dignity.