The Benefits of HIPAA Compliance for Medical Practices

One of the challenges when discussing the benefits of HIPAA compliance for medical practices is proving the benefits are directly attributable to HIPAA. For example, one frequently claimed benefit of HIPAA compliance is improved efficiency. But, has efficiency improved due to complying with HIPAA or would it have improved anyway because of other measures?

Similarly, how do you prove HIPAA compliance protects PHI against data breaches if you don´t experience a data breach? Alternatively, what if you do implement every HIPAA safeguard, but a breach still occurs because an individual with authorization to access PHI misused the authorization? Although in the latter case, the medical practice may not be liable, a data breach has still occurred.

Furthermore, while there is evidence to show that the increased adoption and use of EHRs has resulted in the more efficient delivery of healthcare and a reduction in medical errors, the increased adoption and use of EHRs is more attributable to the HITECH Act than HIPAA – the HIPAA Security Rule stipulating how data should be protected, rather than how it should be used.

Are There Provable Benefits of HIPAA Compliance for Medical Practices?

Fortunately, there are. Research has shown that, when patients trust that measures are in place to protect the confidentiality of personal information, they feel more in control and less at risk, and are more willing to share personal information with medical professionals. This enables medical professionals to make better informed diagnoses and determine the best course of treatment.

Being able to make better informed diagnoses and determine the best course treatment most often results in positive patient outcomes. This raises morale in the workplace, increases patient safety in other areas of the medical practice´s operations, and reflects in higher satisfaction scores from patients and their families – a commonly used indicator for measuring the quality of health care.

Studies have also shown that when patients trust medical professionals, they tend engage better with preventative services, participate more in healthy activities (or reduce unhealthy activities such as smoking), and are more likely to comply with medications and treatments. This helps reduce the severity of illness and accelerates recovery when patients present at a medical practice.

How HIPAA Helps Foster Patient Trust in Medical Professionals

HIPAA helps foster patient trust in medical professionals in many ways. Under the Privacy Rule, medical practices are required to provide patients with a Notice of Privacy Practices. The Notice should not only explain the circumstances in which PHI may be disclosed, but also encourage patients to become more involved in their healthcare by explaining their rights, why they might want to exercise them, and how they can access their medical records or request an accounting of disclosures.

Thereafter patient trust can be further developed by implementing HIPAA-compliant measures so that conversations with patients outside the physician´s office can be conducted in private (i.e., partitioned waiting areas). Other HIPAA-compliant practices a medical practice could adopt include explaining how patients grant or revoke authorization for uses and disclosures of PHI beyond those permitted by the Privacy Rule, or by suggesting HIPAA-compliant modes of communication.

Less obvious ways in which medical practices can demonstrate to patients that measures are in place to protect the confidentiality of personal information include providing password-protected Wi-Fi, offering advice on how to safely use health care portals such as HealthCare.gov, and recommending health care apps that follow Xcertia guidelines for privacy and security. Although these measures are not required by HIPAA, they build on the trust installed by complying with the HIPAA Privacy Rule.

The Consequences of Non-Compliance for Patient Trust

Non-compliance with HIPAA can manifest in many ways in a medical practice. Common examples include discussing a patient´s health care within earshot of other patients, failing to respond to an access request in a timely fashion, or disclosing PHI to a third party without authorization. Each of these examples can damage patient trust and undermine the benefits of HIPAA compliance for medical practices discussed in the previous sections.

The most extreme example of non-compliance with HIPAA is an avoidable breach of unsecured PHI which affects all the medical practice´s patients. In such HIPAA violation cases, not only do the impacted patients and the HHS´ Office for Civil Rights have to be informed, but it may also be necessary to notify local media channels which can result in reputational damage for the medical practices throughout the community for many years into the future.

Further damage to patient trust can occur when medical practices tighten up processes or tie systems down following an unauthorized disclosure of PHI or data breach. In 2019, a study into HIPAA data breach remediation efforts and their implications for hospital care quality found an increase in the time taken to treat patients suffering heart attacks and an increase in myocardial infarction mortality – understandably lowering patient satisfaction scores.

How Medical Practices can Avoid Gaps in HIPAA Compliance

It is not unusual for gaps to appear in HIPAA compliance in busy medical practices. Shortcuts can often be taken to “get the job done”, and when these shortcuts are allowed to continue, they develop into a cultural norm of unintentional non-compliance. Refresher training can help prevent shortcuts developing into cultural norms, but one of the best ways to prevent shortcuts being taken in the first place is HIPAA compliance software with ongoing gap identification and remediation.

HIPAA compliance software not only monitors compliance with HIPAA but can also help busy medical practices develop HIPAA-compliant policies, track workforce training, conduct security assessments, and manage Business Associate Agreements. More advanced HIPAA compliance software also has incident management capabilities so Compliance Teams can respond faster to violations and mitigate any loss to the benefits of HIPAA compliance for medical practices.

Author: Steve Alder has many years of experience as a journalist, and comes from a background in market research. He is a specialist on legal and regulatory affairs, and has several years of experience writing about HIPAA. Steve holds a B.Sc. from the University of Liverpool.