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HIPAA Rules Explained

New Medical Privacy Rules Meant to Protect Your Health Records

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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.

Q: Are computerized records really more secure than paper records?

There are very good ways to protect data electronically. Although it sounds scary, it makes data more protected than current paper records. For example, think about someone looking at your medical chart in the hospital. It has a record of all that is happening -- lab results, doctor consultations, nursing notes, orders, prescriptions, etc. Anybody who opens it for whatever reason can see all of this information. But if the chart is an electronic record, it's easy to limit access to any of that. So a physical therapist writing physical therapy notes can only see information related to physical therapy. There is an opportunity with electronic records to limit information to those who really need to see it. It could in many ways allow more privacy than current paper records.

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