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Each time patients seek treatment at a hospital, doctor's office or other medical facility, they are required to sign documents related to restrictions and rights under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). This act generally gives patients various rights to privacy over their medical information. When physicians breach this act, their behavior may leave them vulnerable to claims of medical malpractice.

Earlier this year, patients' rights were expanded and physicians' responsibilities heightened under HIPAA. In an effort to hold physicians accountable for violations of patient privacy, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released a revised and more stringent version of the act.

Among the changes to the act are many practical benefits for patients. These include the ability to heighten rights to privacy for services that are self-paid and the ability to obtain copies of electronic health records. Changes to the act also significantly increase penalties for physicians and healthcare providers who do not properly safeguard patient privacy. Providers will also be held to new reporting standards related to breaches of privacy, whether those breaches be intentional or unintentional.

In essence, providers must respond to potential breaches in patient privacy security assuming the worst case scenario. Thus, reporting and efforts to right any wrongs must be approached urgently and with careful consideration. Given the proliferation of patient data into the marketplace in recent years, this move on the part of HHS is most welcome.

Healthcare providers are human and sometimes patient privacy concerns will be the recipient of human error. However, holding physicians accountable for these breaches will serve the best interests of patients even when accidental breaches cannot be avoided.

Source: American Medical News, "HIPAA gets tougher on physicians," Jennifer Lubell, Feb. 4, 2013

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