It’s everywhere. From the MyFitnessPal data breach to the public upset stemming from Facebook’s privacy scandal, society is no stranger to leaked personal information. Now, more than ever, people are concerned about the way companies are storing their personal records — and the healthcare industry is no exception. Thankfully, HIPAA has set a standard to ensure private health records are protected.
Achieving HIPAA compliance is no cakewalk, though. Take a look at what HIPAA stands for, why it’s important, and how it plays a crucial role in all healthcare organizations, including senior care facilities.
What is HIPAA?
HIPAA stands for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. It’s a United States law devoted to protecting patients’ medical records and additional health information through strict privacy standards.
Why is HIPAA Important?
Since the Act’s creation and implementation in 1996, it has delivered numerous benefits to health professionals and patients alike. Some of the benefits include:
- Giving patients control over their own health information
- Setting boundaries for health record use and distribution
- Establishing safeguards that force health care providers to achieve certain levels of privacy for their patients’ health information
- Holding violators accountable for violating patient privacy rights
Thanks to HIPAA, patients have the ability to find out how their health information may be used and limit the release of the information. It also provides patients the right to examine and receive a copy of their own health records.
How Has HIPAA Changed the Healthcare Industry?
While the privacy act has produced many major benefits for all involved parties, it has also created challenges for the industry such as:
- Limiting New Research — Healthcare researchers face restrictions since they can no longer freely conduct studies based on patient chart data unless the patient releases the information to them specifically.
- Consuming Precious Time — Prior to HIPAA, healthcare providers had the ability to freely share patient information with other healthcare providers. Now, patients must give permission to providers to share information. This may take more time for critical information to transfer into the correct hands. Within that time, it’s possible for a patient’s health to deteriorate.
- Creating Organization Hesitation — If there is ever a compliance violation, the organization in question must pay hefty legal fees. This has forced healthcare facilities to become overly cautious about sharing patient information even if/when the patient has given permission for them to do so.
- Increasing Healthcare Costs — The cost of healthcare has risen due to the necessary employee training and certification programs, as well as the added time and labor required to complete compliance paperwork. Plus, there are additional fees for consultants that regularly check organizations for HIPAA compliance.
Who Must Be HIPAA Compliant?
Any operations, businesses, or organizations that handle protected health information (PHI) are required to comply with the set standards. The following must be HIPAA compliant:
- Health plans such as Medicare, Medicaid, and company health programs
- Healthcare clearinghouses such as billing services that collect health information and process the data
- Health care providers like physicians, surgeons, dentists, clinics, nursing homes, hospitals, and pharmacies
- Business associates such as data processing firms, data storage companies, document shredding companies, and medical equipment companies
Are Senior Care Facilities Required to Comply with HIPAA?
While nursing homes are specifically called out in HIPAA’s guidelines, not every senior care facility is held to HIPAA laws. Each community has a different business model with their own regulations. However, a majority of facilities still strive and achieve HIPAA compliance even if it’s not specifically required. This is because HIPAA has been established as best practice and following the guidelines ensures respect for residents’ privacy.
In general, assisted living facilities are not considered “covered entities” under HIPAA. Muddy waters arise if those facilities have certain departments or sections that work with hospitals and healthcare providers. If that’s the case, they must comply with HIPAA.
For communities that require compliance and are held to HIPAA regulations, keeping each resident’s medical history or status private can be difficult. As residents and staff members spend a considerable amount of time together and become close, their stories and discussions can lead to accidental leaks of private information.
How Do Senior Care Facilities Achieve HIPAA Compliance?
Assisted living and retirement communities maintain HIPAA compliance through a number of ways, and the list continues to change with technology innovation and the increase in data breaches. Here are a few ways communities work to comply with HIPAA:
Boosting Internet Security
Most facilities have abandoned traditional, physical paperwork filing and turned to convenient, computerized systems. While computers have made transferring information quick and easy, having confidential data on computers increases vulnerability when it comes to hackers and cyber attacks. To comply with HIPAA, facilities must have all of the required software and firewall applications in place to block malware, ransomware, and phishing attempts.
Requiring Staff Training
Training all staff members on HIPAA guidelines and requirements is an essential part of maintaining compliance. Each employee needs to take courses demonstrating how to effectively protect the privacy of patients and/or residents, such as our online eLearning confidentiality course. A HIPAA caregiver training guide is also available, allowing staff members to continuously reference privacy guidelines within their individual packets.
Creating a Plan for Possible Breaches
Even with added security and required training, data breaches and privacy violations are possible. Senior care facilities should have a management process if there is ever a breach or incident. They must be able to track the investigation and prove it was fully completed. Facilities should also have a way for their employees to report incidents anonymously.