HIPAA and the Family: How Changes Are Shifting Privacy Law

With improvements in healthcare, Americans are living longer than ever before. Advanced age, however, is also often accompanied by physical and neurological decline. In their later years, many senior adults can no longer proficiently care for themselves and require assistance navigating the medical system. This responsibility typically falls on their adult children.

Unfortunately, many families fail to adequately address health concerns in advance of significant problems. These are challenging topics and many older adults – either out of concern that they will become a burden or because they are embarrassed about health issues – wont initiate a conversation. That’s why it’s important to for adult children to initiate discussions about their parents health.

What more can you do to ensure that your parent or relative is receiving appropriate medical care as they age? Step one is to open lines of communication with their doctors, and several states are working to make this easier for caregivers.

Privacy and Personal Protections

One of the biggest challenges caregivers encounter when trying to participate in medical decision-making alongside elderly relatives is HIPAA. Designed to protect patient privacy, HIPAA requires that medical professionals carefully protect patient files using data encryption, multi-factor authentication, and strong passwords, among other tools. On its own, HIPAA is a force for good, but it can seem like a hindrance to well-meaning caretakers when doctors refuse to discuss medical issues.

To ensure that doctors can share key medical information with you as a caregiver, you need to talk to your relatives about having your name added to their medical records as someone who their doctors can release information to. You may also look into being named power of attorney for your relative, in the event that they are no longer able to make health decisions independently.

Communicate Clearly

Electronic health records (EHR) are gaining traction in medical offices, and the digitization process has made it easier than ever to transmit health information between providers. This is good news for patient treatment, since digital records tend to be more accurate and complete than paper files, but it’s up to you to make sure that these documents are being transferred. Always speak to your relative’s doctors to find out if they’ve received the appropriate files from other providers.

In addition to making sure that your relative’s doctors are receiving all necessary information from other offices, you should ask to be involved in any discussions regarding treatment or discharge. In fact all individuals, according to Recent Legal News, regardless of age, should have someone else there when they are given important medical information, as details can easily be forgotten and discharge documents aren’t always clear.

California recently made significant strides toward improving patient outcomes by passing a new law, SB 675, requiring hospital staff to involve a patient’s family during discharge discussions. When providers directly discuss post-hospital care with family members, patients are more likely to avoid subsequent illness or rapid readmission.

Be the Care You Trust

One of the most challenging aspects of managing an elderly relative’s care is finding in-home help you can trust. Often, Medicare doesn’t provide sufficient coverage, and we’ve all heard too many tales of elderly abuse by supposed professionals. This frequently results in family members opting to personally provide such care, even if that means taking a leave of absence from work.

Recognizing how valuable a trusted caregiver is, Hawaii’s state legislature is working to pass a law that would pay family members to act as caregivers. This system could dramatically improve health outcomes, reduce abuse, and extend the length of time elderly individuals can remain in their own homes. And with a shortage of home health aides in many regions, Hawaii is also proposing a much-needed alternative option.

No one wants to see the parent-child or caregiving roles reversed, but this is an inevitable part of the aging process. By better including family members in the caregiving process, rather than using privacy protections to shut them out, doctors can help their patients thrive – but this will only happen if you step up and ask to be included.

Melissa Thompson
Melissa Thompson writes about a wide range of topics, revealing interesting things we didn't know before. She is a freelance USA Today producer, and a Technorati contributor.