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Dealing with Patients Unhappy over HIPAA Constraints


HIPAA can be a headache for patients, too. Here are some things you can do to calm the waters when patients object to HIPAA restrictions.

HIPAA is a daily facet of life for healthcare professionals, but many patients have likely never heard of it, and those who do know about it probably have only the vaguest notion of what it's all about. ""HIPAA is extremely confusing,"" said Laurie Morgan, partner and senior consultant at Capko & Morgan, a San Francisco, Calif., a medical consulting firm. ""Some patients have gotten used to it, but it still looks like a lot of legalese and can cause anxiety.""

It can also cause bad patient relations when you have to explain to a patient that, for instance, his wife is going to have to come in and sign a form before you can tell him what medications she's supposed to be taking, or conversely, you have to explain why you were allowed to release to child protection services protected health information about a child's repeated injuries. Staying on the right side of the law while still keeping the customers satisfied can be tricky, said Tammie Olson of Management Resource Group, an Ocean Springs, Miss., firm offering financial management and support services for the healthcare community. She shared a few tips for keeping the waters calm when patients get upset about HIPAA:

• When the patient starts showing signs of being upset-a tense posture, tightened jaw, clenched fists-it's time to recognize that the patient is upset and show empathy and respect. Remember, patients are not always familiar with HIPAA regulations. If you find yourself sometimes exasperated by HIPAA, imagine how patients must feel.

• Remain calm as you explain why you are not allowed to release records. Don't let an angry patient cause you to react in kind. Calm tends to create calm. Instead of escalating the situation, defuse it by explaining that Federal law requires you to protect a patient's privacy. Provide the patient with a copy of the Notice of Privacy Practices. You've probably already done this, but do it again anyway. It will reinforce your position.

• It's also important to make sure that patients understand that HIPAA regulations are designed to protect them. Things will go much more smoothly when patients realize that rather than trying to make things more complicated for them. You are following laws that are designed to protect them.

• Rather than just standing your ground, offer solutions. For example, offer to fax the form to the patient and have her fax the signed form back. Even if those measures aren't necessary or helpful, demonstrating to the patient that you're willing to work with him to make things a bit easier can go a long way toward defusing a tense situation.

• If you find yourself getting upset with the patient, step aside, and let someone who is calmer handle the situation. This is a good time for the HIPAA compliance officer to get involved.

Treating people with respect and understanding are the keys to getting along in any situation. When dealing with patients who are upset about HIPAA regulations, this approach might not only keep the situation from getting out of hand, it can demonstrate that patient care is not limited to the consulting office.

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