HIPAA Privacy: What It Is and Why It Matters for Behavioral Health

Mother and daughter happily sitting outside

Nobody wants their personal information disclosed without permission — especially when it comes to private medical records. The HIPAA Privacy Rule is an important step in protecting the confidentiality of information held by health care providers and insurers. Because the exact information that is shared between patient and provider depends on the practitioner's role in treatment, there are many ways that the rule protects patient privacy.

Join us as we do a deeper dive into HIPAA privacy, how it affects behavioral health and human services organizations, and how tech solutions designed for the industry should keep your patients’ personal health information (and your organization) safe.

What Is HIPAA Privacy?

Patients at a group therapy

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued the HIPAA Privacy Rule as a crucial step in implementing the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996. The HIPAA Privacy Rule, also known as “Standards for Privacy of Individually Identifiable Health Information,” describes a set of laws that govern how health care and its related business entities (“covered entities”) handle patient information. 

The goal is to protect an individual’s right to access their health records and sets conditions to safeguard medical records and protected health information (PHI) from unauthorized access and disclosures.

Protected patient health information includes: 

  • Identifiable data, such as the patient’s name, contact information, and Social Security number
  • Patient’s medical history
  • Information about the person’s treatment plans
  • Health care billing records

The HIPAA Privacy Rule also sets requirements for how organizations are expected to provide certain disclosures, such as the Notice of Privacy Practices, to explain what information they collect and how they use it to provide health plan benefits. For compliance, agencies must also perform HIPAA training and regular security audits to assess their privacy policies and practices. 

In collaboration with the HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR), the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology created a security risk assessment tool to help small and medium health care institutions conduct this security audit.

The OCR investigates situations where an organization has violated HIPAA privacy regulations and may impose monetary penalties (or criminal penalties) for violating the rules or not alerting patients after a data breach.

Health Care Covered Entities Explained

As mentioned, the HIPAA privacy rule applies to covered entities in health care. This comprises the health plans, health care providers, and their business associates. 

  • Health care providers: These include health care professionals and practitioners who provide medical care and treatment. They often handle patients’ health information and collect patient data for a variety of purposes, including billing insurance providers and benefit eligibility claims.
  • Health plans: These are organizations or group plans that cover the payments for patients’ health care. They include Medicaid, Medicare, and insurers. These plans may be operated by an insurer or by another company on behalf of the insurer. For instance, plans offered by employers as part of their employee benefits package.
  • Business associates: Also called the health care clearinghouse, these are third-party service providers that perform indirect financial, accounting, or administrative services for health care providers. These organizations process clients' information on behalf of the health care provider. They include companies that handle billing services, claims processing, and data aggregation.

HIPAA Privacy in Behavioral Health and Human Services 

HIPAA privacy: group of people happily standing together

The patient-physician relationship is the cornerstone of health care, whether it’s medical, mental, or behavioral. Care providers rely on their patients to provide information about their condition and in turn, use this information to help them navigate treatment options and make appropriate decisions. The relationship between a patient and provider is inherently confidential, as it should be.

The HIPAA Privacy rule sets specific conditions under which certain patients’ personal health information may be disclosed. For example, a therapist can share PHI without a patient’s permission if:

  • It addresses public health activities, including disease outbreaks and child abuse reports

  • It’s needed by law enforcement officials against suspected crimes

  • It protects the patient from health threats or domestic abuse

  • It provides proof to access benefits under the workers’ compensation law

Otherwise, PHI can only be disclosed to people involved in their care (family and health providers) under written consent or in the event they cannot decide due to physical or mental limitations.

Since there is so much sensitive information being collected from each patient, behavioral health and human services organizations are required by law enforcement agencies to implement strong data security measures.

How Can Technology Help With HIPAA Compliance?

HIPAA privacy: mother and daughter hugging each other

Health care technology plays an important role in ensuring HIPAA compliance. However, a large part of being HIPAA compliant depends on how data is being used in the system.

Health care providers are advised to implement an interoperable health care system to ensure patients have easy access to their health care records and that those records are protected against unauthorized access.

With respect to behavioral health providers, HIPAA-compliant technology solutions must:

  • Give patients access to their medical records through a secure website or mobile application
  • Keep up-to-date medical records for the patient
  • Protect their health records from unauthorized access
  • Limit access to a patient’s personal information (for example, limiting access only to staff who need it)
  • Establish secure channels of communication with patients

As a health care provider, there are critical technologies you can integrate to improve patient care and the overall efficiency of your organization. Here are three primary areas where tech solutions can ensure data security for both patients and providers.

Electronic Health Record System (EHR)

The need for a holistic approach to health care has never been more important than it is today. ContinuumCloud’s EHR solution is a Meaningful Use III-certified solution, meaning it’s interoperable with other electronic health records to ensure a streamlined flow of information between health care systems.

EHR interoperability allows behavioral health care providers and primary care providers to align and provide a full continuum of care for patients. Interoperability means that all treatment plans, patient records, reports, and clinical data can be shared through a single, secure pathway. This allows the patient's history to be accessible across multiple care settings, which ‌improves public health.

Human Capital Management System (HCM)

Human capital management is a critical success factor for the health care sector. HCM solutions provide comprehensive tools for employee management and can help health care operations by providing a single view of an organization’s workforce. When this solution integrates into your practice, it empowers the employees as an integral part of the company's strategy and growth. 

With HCM, you can better organize trainings to ensure other technologies are being used in a HIPAA-compliant manner. This is vital as employee training on HIPAA compliance is mandatory. ContinuumCloud’s HCM is SOC 2 compliant and provides talent management, performance management, and employee development tools to improve workforce efficiency and reduce operational costs.

Mobile Technology 

Mental health solutions that incorporate remote counseling features make it easier for people to connect with health providers and get the support they need. These mobile apps have become a vital part of the health care system because they can be used by people who may not otherwise have access to behavioral health care resources or services.

ContinuumCloud’s HIPAA-compliant patient engagement platform is an accessible digital solution that offers a range of direct communication channels between patients and health care providers via online messaging, email, or calls. 

These behavioral health technologies are designed to help patients engage with their health providers to achieve their treatment goals. They offer opportunities for patients to access information about their condition, treatment plans, medications, and more. In addition, they can provide opportunities for self-management planning, such as tracking progress or completing follow-up appointments. 

ContinuumCloud’s CaredFor App gives patients a secure and easy way to access their health information and connect with family, friends, and alumni to take charge of their health care journey without worrying about disclosure of PHI.

Choose a Tech Solution That’s HIPAA Compliant for Peace of Mind 

The HIPAA Privacy Rule protects patients’ sensitive health information and prevents it from being shared or publicized without permission.

HIPAA applies to all health care providers, regardless of size or location. It also applies to most business associates who maintain electronically protected health information about their clients, such as insurance companies or service providers. 

To avoid noncompliance, it’s essential to partner with a vendor that understands — and stays up to date — on all the rules and regulations. ContinuumCloud provides HIPAA-compliant solutions designed specifically for behavioral health and human services so you can have peace of mind as you work toward better health outcomes for your patients. 

Connect with us today for more information about implementing our range of health care solutions.

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