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The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) is an important piece of legislation that is intended to protect the privacy of a person’s medical information. How personal information, called Protected Health Information (or PHI for short), can be shared by health care professionals is covered under the portion of HIPAA known as the Privacy Rule.

Essentially, if one cuts through the typical legal jargon that makes up HIPAA, the Privacy Rule is there to make sure that a person’s medical records and information are not shared inappropriately. Most people don’t want a commercial entity combing through their prescription list. Similarly, most people prefer to determine which of their friends or relatives know what medical challenges they face. Thanks to HIPAA, your rights are ensured.

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Problems frequently arise when a senior citizen is being tended by a family or professional caregiver. The provisions of the Privacy Act are under debate regarding the legal standing to have a doctor be liable to a lawsuit should he break the act. However, most medical professionals are extremely cautious and do not want to risk being sued for divulging private information to a relative or caregiver unless given explicit instructions to do so. For some doctors, oral permission may be sufficient, but many doctors (and hospitals) will insist on a signed permission form before sharing information about a senior’s care and condition. It is therefore advisable that caregivers of seniors make sure that all necessary permissions have been granted to all of their patient’s doctors.

This may seem like an unnecessary and intrusive procedure, but it’s ultimately in the best interests of everyone involved:

  • The patient can exercise appropriate control over his or her private information.
  • The doctor will be sure of exactly what information he or she is allowed to discuss and with whom (and may also learn information from a caregiver which he or she would not otherwise have been privy to).
  • The caregiver will have legitimate access to information that will enable him or her to carry out duties more effectively.

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In an emergency situation, some doctors will disclose full information even without a signed form. One interpretation of the Privacy Act holds that an individual must explicitly tell a doctor if he or she is NOT to share information with a person who can legitimately be considered the patient’s caregiver. If an emergency situation arises and permission is not formally in place and a caregiver believes that information is not being shared appropriately, the caregiver should work with a hospital social worker, privacy officer or patient representative to resolve the matter.

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