What is Medical Privacy?

Alexis W.

Medical privacy refers to a patient's right to have his or her medical information kept confidential. Medical privacy laws and regulations place limits on who exactly medical information can be shared with. Privacy within the medical field is also protected by doctor/patient confidentiality, which is a legally recognized privilege.

Medical records contain confidential information about a patient's health and medical treatment history.
Medical records contain confidential information about a patient's health and medical treatment history.

There are a number of reasons why medical privacy is important. Patients could fear discrimination on the part of family, friends or employers on the basis of having certain illnesses or diseases. People may also want to keep certain medical information secret for a variety of reasons, such as the need to avoid embarrassment or the desire not to have to speak about an illness to friends.

Many patients are concerned about their privacy due to the increased use of technology to access and maintain medical records.
Many patients are concerned about their privacy due to the increased use of technology to access and maintain medical records.

Medical privacy laws ensure that the patient is able to determine who to share his medical information with and when. In the United States, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) sets forth laws designed to protect the privacy of patients. There are numerous regulations and safeguards in place, dealing in part with keeping electronic records and in part with other types of disclosure.

In the medical and mental health professions, privacy and confidentiality are often referred to as the doctor-patient privilege.
In the medical and mental health professions, privacy and confidentiality are often referred to as the doctor-patient privilege.

Under HIPAA, a physician cannot reveal information about a patient's condition to anyone except the patient without the patient's consent. This means that a doctor cannot even reveal information to a spouse or parent or to the police in the event of a crime. The patient will either need to consent that the doctor may share information or the court, in the case of police, will need to issue a subpoena if extenuating circumstances are present.

Medical professionals are expected to keep patient information and records confidential.
Medical professionals are expected to keep patient information and records confidential.

Certain limitations exist on medical privacy. For example, a physician can share information with an insurance company if he needs to do so to get treatment approved. Generally, this also requires patient consent, although the patient may simply consent to general sharing of information and may not have to consent on each specific instance. Certain limited information can also be shared with collection agencies if a patient has unpaid medical bills, but this information is usually limited to the cost of treatments performed and cannot provide specific details about the medical services provided.

HIPAA also mandates safeguards for the electronic storage of patient records to ensure privacy. For example, HIPAA sets rules that dictate limited access to electronic records. HIPAA also has policies in place for breach of the privacy rules and reporting requirements in case health records or data is accessed by an unauthorized party.

A physician usually can share patient information with an insurance company.
A physician usually can share patient information with an insurance company.

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Discussion Comments

Oceana

@Perdido – I've known some women who never told their husbands they were pregnant. They just terminated it without him ever knowing.

I don't know whether or not this was legal. I mean, the doctor could have assumed that she told her husband, but then again, if it were illegal, then wouldn't he have had to sign some sort of papers?

I believe that medical privacy law makes everything confidential, even from a person's spouse. However, morally, telling him would be the right thing to do. After all, it is partially his baby.

Perdido

What are the rules on medical information privacy when it involves an unborn child? Does the husband have the right to know that his wife is pregnant with his child, or is even that kept secret until she chooses to reveal it?

I just wonder if women can have abortions without telling their husbands that they are pregnant. It seems to me that the man would have a right to know that he has a baby in existence before she terminates the pregnancy. Shouldn't he have a say in this?

Kristee

I feel good about the legal privacy of my medical information. I have nosy people in my life who would just love to know what I've been going to the doctor for lately, but since I haven't signed any consent forms that would release this information to anyone but my husband, they have no way of knowing.

I think that medical privacy is important for people like me who have nosy friends and families. Some things are just better kept secret, and some things I just don't want to discuss. If it doesn't affect anyone else, then they don't need to know.

shell4life

Wow, it's hard to believe that medical privacy rights even extend to people who have committed crimes. It's amazing to me that police have to wait for a judge to act before they can get medical information.

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