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HIPAA Rules Explained

New Medical Privacy Rules Meant to Protect Your Health Records
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WebMD asked Kimberly Rask, MD, PhD, director the center on health outcomes and quality at Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health, to put HIPAA rules into perspective.

Q: What does HIPAA mean to the average person? What has changed?

Rask: The intent is to protect the privacy of your health information. What's different is that HIPAA puts some very specific rules in place about when, how, and what kind of information can be shared. Also, it makes sure that the person whose information is being shared is aware of that possibility.

Q: What will happen when we see our doctors?

Rask: There are two things patients will see. First, doctors' offices will ask patients to sign papers saying they are aware the office has privacy policies in place. They can review those policies if they like. Second, patients may be asked to sign forms that authorize sharing of medical information with other healthcare providers involved in their care. They may be required to sign separate forms for each provider.

Q: Is this really going to make our medical records more private?

Rask: I think actually, from a privacy perspective, having these regulations in place guarantees a higher level of privacy. I don't think there's a downside here.

Q: What's not to like?

Rask: Where there is a downside is in bigger issues that don't relate to individual patients. Example one: In order to comply, many doctors, hospitals, etc. are spending enormous amounts [of money] to become compliant. Dollars that go to this are not dollars that go elsewhere. It is important to think about the costs of making this paperwork trail. At a time when we are having so much trouble providing minimal healthcare to so much of our population, I would like to see more of an emphasis on care than on paperwork. But that is a trade-off we are making to ensure better privacy.

The second problem I have is that we aren't just concerned with the care given to an individual patient. We also are concerned about the quality of care we provide and about patient safety. For these larger issues, researchers need to be able to look at patient information. We need to be able to tell when things went wrong and when they went right. The more we restrict this research, the more we restrict our ability to describe and improve what is going on in the healthcare system. That is a trade-off, too. Some people would feel that the privacy of an individual outweighs any other benefit. On the other hand, it is very difficult to change or improve healthcare if we can't look at what is being done.

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