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Privacy standards helpful

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Recently, I've received many privacy notices from financial institutions at which I have accounts. As a healthcare professional, it made me think about the current status of healthcare and what the industry is doing to improve privacy for patients. Only last month, an incident occurred with a reputable drug company where the e-mail addresses of approximately 600 people taking the anti-depressant Prozac, were accidentally disclosed.

Another example of a breach of health privacy: "The 13-year old daughter of a hospital employee took a list of patients' names and phone numbers from the hospital when visiting her mother at work. As a joke, she contacted patients and told them that they were diagnosed with HIV" (The Washington Post, March 1,1995). No matter the circumstances of a breach of health privacy, the potential implications and harm to individuals are no laughing matter.

Fortunately, the healthcare industry is aware of patient privacy concerns and is earnestly working toward compliance with legislation of national privacy standards recently signed into law. In most circles, both inside and outside of healthcare, this legislation is known as HIPAA--the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act of 1996.

HIPAA addresses betterment in two main areas, insurance and healthcare. HIPAA consists of multiple titles, subtitles, standards, and rules. Healthcare privacy and confidentiality standards are but a part of this huge law. The privacy standards were published in the Federal Register on Dec. 28, 2000, but delayed until April 14, 2001. For most health plans, providers and clearinghouses, the compliance data is April 14, 2003 at which time if non-compliant, are subject to penalties and fines. See www.hipaadvisory.com/regs/HIPAAprimer1.htm

The privacy standards basically apply to individually identifiable health information, and addresses who has the right to access the information They will:

limit non-consensual use and release of private health information;

assure patients' rights to access their own medical records and know who else has accessed them;

restrict disclose of most health information to the minimum amount necessary for the intended purpose of the disclosure; and

establish new requirements for researchers and others to access a patient's records

Although the compliance date is nearly 21 months to the future, and many issues within the privacy standards are presently under intense debate, I believe that overall, healthcare consumers will begin to benefit immediately as awareness is heightened, and agencies move toward compliance . The privacy standards will serve to help restore patient trust to the healthcare industry.

Ken Barlow of Salt Lake City is a registered nurse who is attending graduate school at the University of Utah studying medical infomatics.