Confidentiality is the right of an individual to have personal, identifiable medical information kept private. Such information should be available only to the physician of record and other health care andpersonnel as necessary. As of 2003, patient confidentiality was protected by federal statute.
The passage of federal regulations (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) was prompted by the need to ensure privacy and protection of personal records and data in an environment of electronic medical records andpayers.
Patient confidentiality means that personal and medical information given to a health care provider will not be disclosed to others unless the individual has given specific permission for such release.
Because the disclosure of personal information could cause professional or personal problems, patients rely on physicians to keep their medical information private. It is rare for medical records to remain completely sealed, however. The most benign breach of confidentiality takes place when clinicians share medical information as case studies. When this data is published in professional journals the identity of the patient is never divulged, and all identifying data is either eliminated or changed. If this confidentiality is breached in any way, patients may have the right to sue.
The greatest threat to medical privacy, however, occurs because most medical bills are paid by some form of health insurance, either private or public. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to keep information truly confidential. Health records are routinely viewed not only by physicians and their staffs, but by the employees of insurance companies, medical laboratories, public health departments, researchers, and many others. If an employer provides health insurance, the employer and designated employees may have access to employee files.
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