The following scenario is true, but some of the details have been changed to protect the innocent, and the guilty.

The setting is the cramped reception area of a small dental practice. The office manager, who also works the front desk, is on the phone there with a patient.

“Julie Jones? This is Dr. Burton’s office. Your lab results are in and they indicate you’ve tested positive for an STD. You’ll need to schedule an appointment as soon as possible with your primary care physician.”

Her voice drifts over into the nearby waiting room. A few people look up from the magazines they’ve been flipping through. One of them, who happens to be a neighbor of Ms. Jones, arches an eyebrow and softly clucks her tongue. Information that should be confidential between this office and patient is now dangerously close to public knowledge. With this particular neighbor in the know, people in Julie’s cul-de-sac will probably hear these results well before her current boyfriend.

Informing patients of test results is a normal and necessary part of the workday at every office that deals in healthcare. But in this case, having that conversation where it can be overheard violates Ms. Jones’ right to privacy. A right protected by the law known as HIPAA.

hipaa privacy rule and patients' rights

Photo courtesy of John-Morgan(CC Attribution)

Privacy. A fundamental patient right.

With so much involved in running a successful healthcare practice today, it’s easy to understand how HIPAA has come to be viewed as more of a nuisance than a necessary part of good care.   

But at its core, HIPAA isn’t about extra logistical hassles or additional work, it’s really about best practices — and creating and maintaining a professional environment that protects every patient’s rights. 

The relationship patients have with healthcare professionals is one that involves openness, honesty, and a deep level of trust. Patients tell their providers things about themselves that few others know, intimate details of their lives and health histories.

And they expect that their privacy will be respected – by their doctors and dentists, staff members, and other providers such as labs, XRAY services, and anyone and everyone involved in their treatment. Patients expect that outsiders will not be able to access their information, and that those who need to know will be able to view only the information that’s necessary for treatment.

This way of dealing with health information is more than professional courtesy, it’s a fundamental patient right – the very issue that HIPAA speaks to, ensuring that patients will know when their rights have been violated and can feel confident that the law will be enforced and violations punished. 

If patient information isn’t protected, the effects can be far-reaching. In the wrong hands, a person’s health information can be used to tarnish his or her reputation or cause financial harm. In some cases, compromised information can even negatively impact care.

HIPAA helps keep patient data safe

Modern technology has facilitated the quick dispersal of information among various entities; HIPAA helps keep all that data safe. From installing firewalls in the office’s computer system to training employees in the proper protocols when contacting patients, HIPAA, in essence, is all about safeguarding every patient’s right to privacy, security and respect.

Ensuring a patient’s right to privacy is essential to the practice of good healthcare — and a vital part of the covenant between providers and patients. Implementing the mandates of HIPAA plays an important role in building patient trust and a thriving practice.