Thursday, March 22, 2012

HIPAA gives patient privacy added layer of protection

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="Dr. Tom Nielsen, right, and registered nurse Mindy Pecher review a patient’s chart March 14 in the Emergency Department of Aspirus Wausau Hospital in Wausau. / Xai Kha/Wausau Daily Herald"][/caption]


It started as an effort to allow consumers to change health insurance plans without being penalized for existing medical conditions.

But the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, also set rules on patient privacy, putting new restrictions on public disclosure throughout the health care industry. In some instances, hospitals now will not release information to a patient's family, and ambulance companies will not divulge where they received calls for help.

Hospital officials in Wausau say HIPAA, which took effect in 2003, has had little effect on them because of strict state privacy rules in place since 1983.

"As far as what (information) we release and what we don't, we have not experienced a huge difference," said Sandy Lackey, director of compliance and privacy officer for Aspirus Wausau Hospital.

Patients always can request that information about their hospital stay be withheld from outsiders, including family members. Absent that request, the hospitals will permit visitors, disclose that a patient is being treated there and release basic information about the patient's condition.

Lackey said hospitals release only the information they think is necessary to help family members with patients' care -- information hospitals can release without patients' consent.

"(HIPAA) made it clear that a physician or nurse can provide information to family members involved in the care of a patient to the extent they need that information to assist in care," Lackey said. "But (HIPAA Training) doesn't allow us to say, 'Here's a family member's medical record, review it at will' -- those things are still controlled by the patient."

Emergency responders also need to be careful about using patient information for training purposes, said Josh Finke, EMS Division chief for Wausau's Fire Department.

Finke said Wausau uses past medical calls for EMS training, but "anything that could ID a patient" must be kept out of training to avoid connecting a medical call to a specific patient.

The law sometimes becomes an issue when media outlets seek information about victims injured in crimes, traffic crashes or other incidents.

Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said some medical professionals interpret patient privacy too broadly as a way of protecting themselves from scrutiny or criticism.

Lueders noted that the state attorney general's office issued a 2007 opinion that ambulance companies could not universally withhold information about ambulance calls under HIPAA Healthcare Compliance.

Despite that one "pressure point," Lueders said he believes the new federal law has improved patient privacy without creating unintended bottlenecks of public disclosure.

"It's not been a big issue in Wisconsin," he said.

-- Reporter Scott Williams

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