Your Right to Privacy

As a consumer, you have certain rights when it comes to medical care.  The Consumer Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, better known as the Patient Bill of Rights has been around since 1998 – with three main objectives:

  • ensure a fair and equitable healthcare system to meet patient needs;  this includes a means to address problems and promoting an active patient role in getting and staying healthy
  • emphasize the importance of a strong relationship between patients and their health care providers
  • highlight how patients can stay healthy by advancing rights and responsibilities for all patients and health care providers.

Together, the eight key components of the Patient Bill of Rights comprise a powerful resource to protect both patients and providers in hospitals and other care facilities:

  • Information
  • Choice of providers and plans
  • Access to emergency services
  • Shared decision making
  • Respect and non-discrimination
  • Confidentiality
  • Complaints and appeals
  • Consumer responsibilities

The Human Factor will take a look at these rights, and what it means for you over the next few weeks. With all of the buzz about health information technology, online access to medical records, and changing infrastructure, let’s begin with patient confidentiality.

Federal law determines who can see and access your health information, and under what circumstances. It gives you rights over your own information, which can help you to protect it. As an aside, it was the late Senator Ted Kennedy who helped create this law.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy Rule provides protection for personal health information held by covered entities, such as hospitals, doctors, nurses, pharmacies, insurance companies, and nursing homes. This rule balances privacy protection with the need for disclosure of personal information for necessary healthcare or other key reasons. Some entities, such as schools or child welfare agencies are exempt.

What is in your medical record, conversations between your doctor and others about care and treatment, health insurance and billing information are some of the types of information that is protected. Adequate safeguards, such as limits on viewing, use, and disclosure by providers and other medical personnel are mandated.

As a patient, you have a right to see and have a copy of your health records, have corrections to any errors made, be notified if your information may be used or shared, and can opt out of some information-sharing purposes. Without your authorization, your provider generally cannot provide information to an employer, for marketing, or share private notes.

If you believe your rights were violated, you can file a complaint or grievance with your provider, state, or federal regulators.

The Security Rule protects information in electronic form. According to HHS,

“The Security Standards for the Protection of Electronic Protected Health Information (the Security Rule) establish a national set of security standards for protecting certain health information that is held or transferred in electronic form.”

The Security Rule ensures that the privacy remains secure by taking care of both technical and non-technical protections that the covered entities must have to secure consumers’ “electronic protected health information” (e-PHI).

One of the main goals of the  Security Rule is to ensure the privacy of individuals’ health information while being fleible enough to encourage adoption of technologies that improve the quality and efficiency of patient care.  It’s a balancing act.

As patients, we must make sure our rights are protected, while at the same time getting the best possible medical care. As more records and services go electronic, it is up to every patient to become more proactive about their medical records. Ask questions about who has access to your personal information and what safeguards are in place to make sure that only those that need to know can view or use it.

Look for the next installment on the Patient Bill of Rights soon.

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