From the start, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, better known by its acronym HIPAA, has focused on patients while requiring the healthcare industry to take steps to better serve them.
Enacted in 1997, HIPAA’s first major order was guaranteeing employees the right to continue to receive health insurance coverage when they are between jobs. Later, it moved on to tackle two more major issues: patient privacy and standardized medical recordkeeping.
Why Is HIPAA Important?
The easy answer: HIPAA is important because it’s the law, and the penalties for breaking it can be severe.
It also gave unprecedented rights to patients: for the first time, they could request, review, correct, and restrict access to their medical information. It also spelled out requirements for medical personnel to safeguard those records and restrict who could view them.
The notion that patients had any rights to their own medical information was a pretty radical one, back in 1976. So was telling the powerful healthcare industry that they had responsibilities to patients beyond “do no harm.”
HIPAA In the Healthcare Field
So what are the benefits of HIPAA in the healthcare field?
Many observers agree that HIPAA prodded medical providers – staff in physician offices, hospitals, nursing facilities, outpatient centers – to take medical records seriously before problems with safeguarding private medical information and poor record-keeping became epidemic.
Prior to HIPAA, it wasn’t unusual to see patient health records lying around an office for anyone to glimpse. Couriers could be seen delivering paper records between offices: one mishap and an embarrassing record or revealing photograph was up for grabs.
That was in addition to an average of 150 people who had easy access to patient medical records after a hospital stay, as HIPAA’s preamble to the Privacy Rule notes. Does an X-ray technician need to view blood test results, and should a billing clerk be able to pull up a patient’s height, weight, and family medical history? Of course not, and this casual attitude toward medical information, some of which can be highly sensitive, needed to be halted.
HIPAA’s move to standardize who can view medical records and how to protect them were initially strongly resisted. But these steps were necessary. The industry clearly was unable or unwilling to do this on their own, as Donna Bowers wrote in Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings back in 2001.
By requiring electronic medical records, HIPAA pushed the industry into the IT forefront as it established firm security protocols and lay the groundwork for standardized data collection processes, as Luke Gale wrote in HealthcareDive in 2016. Many of these standards were adopted by other industries that also handled personal information.
Finally, few people in 1996 could foresee an era when patients could easily share their opinions and experiences with healthcare and medical providers. HIPAA didn’t cause this to happen, of course, but it can be argued that it prepared the industry for Yelp and dedicated rating services like Healthgrades and Vitals.
Why Is Compliance Important in Healthcare?
Compliance is important in any industry, of course. Healthcare is one that touches nearly every individual. Requiring compliance programs improves patient care and interactions, and it can be argued, helps individuals in the industry maintain reasonably positive reputations among peers and patients. After all, who wants to be the one who makes the news by losing or accidentally exposing private medical information?
Compliance is important in healthcare to ensure HIPAA-covered entities follow the law and avoid penalties. They can also guard against potential malpractice issues. In this way, HIPAA may have saved the industry from itself by pushing it to solve some of its most serious problems. If you have any additional questions about this or similar topics, reach out to Hybrid Chart, today!
Dr. Gregory Sanders is a Harvard-trained, practicing cardiologist and founder and CEO of HybridChart. He has been coding since the 1980s and has spent his medical career focusing on improving processes. His patient care skills earned him recognition as one of Phoenix Magazine’s TOP DOCs. He lives in Scottsdale with his family.