The benefits of HIPAA compliance for medical practices are often discussed in terms of streamlining administrative functions, improving efficiency, and avoiding penalties for HIPAA violations and data breaches. However, evidence shows that HIPAA-compliant medical practices also benefit from better patient outcomes.
The Administrative Simplification provisions of Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the provisions of the HITECH Act as introduced by the HIPAA Final Omnibus Rule have had a major impact on the healthcare industry. Complying with the provisions is often seen as an administrative burden, but there are substantial benefits of HIPAA compliance for medical practices.
For example, the standardization of electronic transactions has streamlined eligibility checks, billing, payments, and other healthcare operations – saving time and money on paperwork – while the incentivized adoption and use of EHRs has resulted in the more efficient delivery of health care and a reduction in medical errors – which can also be time-consuming and costly to resolve.
In terms of complying with the HIPAA requirements – and the policies and procedures that safeguard Protected Health Information (PHI) – it is true that non-compliance can result in substantial penalties, even when no breach of data has occurred. However, the benefits of HIPAA compliance for medical practices can far outweigh the administrative burden.
The Importance of Patient Trust in Health Care Delivery
One often overlooked benefit of HIPAA compliance is that it increases patient trust. Historically, medical providers have focused on educating patients on the benefits of sharing PHI by emphasizing both cost and error reductions. However, research has shown that patients are more willing to share intimate details about themselves when they are assured that their information will remain private.
When they are assured that their information will remain private, patients feel more in control and less at risk; and, by sharing intimate details about themselves, medical providers have more information with which to make an accurate diagnosis and determine the best treatment. Being able to determine the best treatment increases the safety of the patient and results in better outcomes.
Better patient outcomes are not only attributable to trust in face-to-face patient-physician relationships. Further research suggests that, when patients trust their medical providers, they tend to participate more in health care activities (i.e., preventative services) and better comply with suggested treatments – ultimately leading to increased satisfaction with the medical practice.
Security and Compliance Reassures Patients of Small Medical Practices
Security and compliance play key roles in fostering patient trust, starting with a Notice of Privacy Practices that explains to patients about how PHI is protected and under what circumstances it may be disclosed. The Notice should also encourage patients to become more involved in their health care by explaining why they may want to access their medical records and how they can do it.
Thereafter, operational practices can build on the initial reassurance. Waiting areas can be partitioned so conversations that relate to patient care are conducted in private, patients can be reminded of their rights to grant or revoke authorization for certain uses of PHI, and receptionists can suggest HIPAA-compliant methods of communication between the patient and the practice.
Because many HIPAA security activities take place out of sight of patients, it can help build trust by implementing measures unconnected with HIPAA. For example, providing password-protected Wi-Fi, offering advice about online security for health care portals such as HealthCare.gov, and informing patients how to secure messages on unencrypted services such as Facebook Messenger.
Non-Compliance with HIPAA Damages Patient Trust
The obvious example of how non-compliance with HIPAA damages patient trust is when a breach of PHI occurs. In such circumstances, the medical practice is required to inform all affected patients and the HHS´ Office for Civil Rights. In some circumstances, it is also necessary to notify local media – potentially resulting in reputational damage and a loss of trust by the whole patient community.
More common examples of how HIPAA violations damage patient trust include the refusal to respond to right of access requests and unauthorized verbal disclosures of PHI, and rebuilding patient trust – especially after a data breach – requires a significant effort. Unfortunately, many medical practices exacerbate the problem by tightening procedures or tying systems down.
A study in 2019 found that breach remediation efforts had a detrimental impact on health care operations over a three-year period – extending time-to-treatment and increasing patient mortality rates. Had the subjects of the study been HIPAA-compliant, it would not have been necessary to rebuild patient trust from a position worse than when the patient first entered the system.
How Effective HIPAA Training Benefits Medical Practices
Training is not optional under HIPAA. It is a requirement of both the Privacy Rule (45 CFR §164.530) and the Security Rule (45 CFR §164.308). However, the requirements can leave gaps in employees´ knowledge as they only require Covered Entities to provide training on the policies and procedures relevant to employee´s roles and periodic security awareness training.
It is also the case that Covered Entities can decide what to include in HIPAA training based on a risk analysis. If the risk analysis is inaccurate, or a risk is not considered serious, areas of the Privacy or Security Rule could be omitted. Additionally, Covered Entities that fail to monitor post-training compliance – or fail to provide refresher training – can facilitate a culture of non-compliance.
To address shortcomings in HIPAA-mandated training – and to support existing training programs – Covered Entities have the option to take advantage of off-the-shelf HIPAA training packages. Off-the-shelf HIPAA training does not replace HIPAA-mandated training because each Covered Entity has its own, unique policies and procedures. However, it can fill gaps in employees´ knowledge.
HIPAA training packages also help with knowledge retention by providing background information that puts HIPAA-mandated training into context. They can be used as foundation courses or to provide refresher training; and, because the training packages are built around online training modules, training can be taken when individuals have time in their busy schedules.
The biggest benefit to medical practices of off-the-shelf HIPAA training is that it keeps the policies and procedures implemented to develop patient trust at “top-of-mind”. In frantic health care environments, it is easy to forget policies and procedures or take short cuts to “get the job done”. Frequent reminders of HIPAA training helps to mitigate the risk of this happening.