The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) significantly improved the healthcare industry’s cybersecurity landscape. HIPAA’s impacts went beyond the healthcare practices and associated businesses; there are also several HIPAA patient rights granted to healthcare consumers. At the most basic level, these include reasonable expectations of privacy and access. Let’s take a closer look.
Essential Patient Data Rights Under HIPAA
The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) developed HIPAA to distinguish data on health and payment records as “protected health information” (PHI). Later, the HITECH Act expanded the definition to account for electronic PHI (ePHI). Together, both acts grant patients fundamental rights. Below, we break down everything you need to know about them, including:
- Rights of privacy and accessibility granted directly by the HIPAA Privacy Rule
- Other de facto rights related to the remaining HIPAA rules
- Ways companies can accommodate their patients’ rights and needs
By the end of this blog, you’ll know your patients’ rights and expectations, and how to meet and exceed their expectations. We’ll end with resources to help you ensure compliance.
Primary HIPAA Patient Rights
The most critical patient rights under HIPAA have to do with patients’ right to access their PHI. Patients are guaranteed unfettered access to all medical records and payment history related to healthcare goods and services purchased. Patients have the right to share this information as they please, provided that they do not infringe upon others’ privacy.
Patients need access to their medical records to make informed decisions about their care. For example, it’s helpful to have all your medical information available when deciding whether or not to proceed with surgery, which treatment options to consider, as well as preventative methods. However, patients also need to know that these records are safe and that other individuals are not accessing them without the patient’s consent. To that effect, the Privacy Rule lays out the exact terms under which use and access are authorized.
Accessibility and Privacy of PHI
The HIPAA Privacy Rule provides patients the right to request access to their individual PHI. This is one of the two cases in which use or disclosure of PHI is not only permitted but specifically required — the other involves a direct request by HHS or other governmental agencies for legal purposes. Per the summary of the Privacy Rule, permitted uses include:
- Uses and disclosures necessary for treatment, payment, and healthcare operations
- Uses and disclosures for which the patient has a reasonable opportunity to object
- Uses and disclosures incidental to other permitted or required uses and disclosures
- Uses and disclosures made in the public interest, such as in public benefit projects
- Uses and disclosures of limited data sets for approved research
Furthermore, patients’ access to their own PHI must be unrestricted. This is not the case for other permitted uses, which must be limited to the minimum necessary requirement.
Other HIPAA Patient Rights
HIPAA laws provide patients with peace of mind, knowing their sensitive information is being protected to the best of the healthcare providers’ abilities. The HIPAA Enforcement Rule ensures that healthcare providers who don’t adequately protect patients’ health records face severe civil and criminal penalties — along with the consequences of cybercrime.
For example, covered entities who neglect HIPAA rules can face fines of up to $50 thousand dollars per violation, totaling up to $1.5 million dollars over the course of a year. In addition, intentional violations can carry fees of up to $250 thousand dollars and up to 10 years of jail time. While these measures don’t enforce security on their own, they do so by threat of penalty. The stringent nature of these penalties is what provides peace of mind to patients.
Let’s take a closer look at the other rules companies have to follow that provide patients rights.
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Confidentiality, Integrity, and Availability
Under HIPAA, patients have the right to a reasonable expectation of privacy and security. The Security Rule builds on the baseline protections of the Privacy Rule, defining safeguards that ensure confidentiality, integrity, and availability of PHI through risk analysis and management.
According to HHS’s summary of the Security Rule, its primary protections include:
- Administrative safeguards – Top-level management of security processes and personnel, identity and access protocols, workforce training, and corrective evaluation
- Physical safeguards – Practices and procedures for monitoring and restricting access to physical devices connected to PHI, as well as physical spaces in which PHI is accessible
- Technical safeguards – Specific controls governing access to, auditing of, and integrity throughout cybersecurity infrastructure, especially communications over networks
While these safeguards are not framed as “HIPAA rights,” they constitute the safety precautions a patient can expect.
Security Breach Notifications, Guaranteed
Under HIPAA, patients have the right to know if, when, and how their data was accessed inappropriately. The Breach Notification Rule requires immediate reporting of data breaches to all parties impacted “without unreasonable delay.” In practice, covered entities must notify stakeholders by mail within 60 days of the breach’s discovery. If contact information for ten or more stakeholders is missing, the company must post a notification on its home page.
The Breach Notification Rule also requires two other forms of Breach Reporting:
- Secretary notice – For all data breaches, the covered entity must provide notice to the Secretary of the HHS, within a timeframe determined by the size of the breach:
- Breaches impacting over 500 people require immediate notice (within 60 days)
- Breaches impacting less than 500 people require notice within the calendar year
- Media notice – For any data breach that impacts more than 500 people within a given geographic area, the covered entity must notify a prominent media outlet in that area
Across HIPAA’s four rules, patients’ rights are guaranteed by companies’ willingness and ability to comply. Compliance is essential not just for safety but for upholding patients’ HIPAA rights.
Accommodating Patients’ Rights and Needs
Compliance is the key to guaranteeing patient rights. But maintaining compliance can be challenging, especially for smaller to medium-sized businesses with modest or stressed IT budgets. Enter RSI Security.
Our comprehensive HIPAA and HITECH compliance advisory services include:
- Implementation and testing of Privacy Rule and Security Rule protections
- Auditing and monitoring of Breach Notification infrastructure and readiness
- Thorough risk analysis of your company and its patient data environment(s)
- Internal, external, network, and other forms of compliance penetration testing
Regardless of the challenges, HIPAA implementation can entail, RSI Security will tailor solutions to your company’s exact needs and means. Our expert team has helped companies achieve HIPAA compliance for over a decade. Whatever you need, we have it covered.
Professional HIPAA Compliance Advisory
Here at RSI Security, we know how critical compliance is for businesses in every industry, especially healthcare. We also know that compliance is hardly the end of cybersecurity; in fact, it’s just the beginning.
To fully protect clients, businesses should implement a powerful cyberdefense architecture complete with perimeter security (like web filtering), threat and vulnerability management, detection and response, and robust training and awareness. To see how our suite of managed IT and security services can help you guarantee your clients’ HIPAA patient rights and bolster your overall defenses, contact RSI Security today!
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