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Questions About Effectiveness of Health Privacy Laws

Nearly ten years ago a new federal law went into effect that sought to better protect patient health records. For many reasons, privacy is paramount in regard to these healthcare issues and patients rightly have the expectation that outsiders will not be able to access these materials without their consent. Yet, our Chicago medical malpractice lawyers were disheartened to read a new Chicago Tribune article on the topic which suggests that record privacy is not as complete as most think.

These breaches are not trivial. When this information is not kept secret, patients may be exposed to identify theft and various fraud issues. In addition, at times a breach allows others to alter medical records. When that happens the patient could be unknowingly exposed to serious medical errors. For these reasons there is little room for error when it comes to securing these documents.

The story shared how in the last two and a half years alone there have been at least 400 large healthcare record breaches and thousands of smaller breaches reported to federal officials. Many other breaches might also have occurred without being properly reported. One of the largest breaches ever occurred last September when information from patients enrolled in TRICARE (a military health program) was taken-nearly 5 million were affected. This breach leaked the names, addresses, Social Security numbers, clinical notes, lab tests, and prescription information of military servicemembers, their families, and retirees.

Each Chicago medical malpractice attorney at our firm knows that Illinois has not been immune to these breaches. Some estimates suggest that as many as a quarter of a million Illinoisans have had their private data exposed in the last two and a half years. The breaches have affected local hospitals, a hospice system, medical labs, and a radiologist practice. Billing companies also accounted for many breaches in our state. Third party breaches accounted for six of the nineteen largest breaches since September of 2009.

Each of these incidents have slightly different causes. At times they result from intentional acts of theft, where wrongdoers are trying to get access to the information, usually in order to gain financially. In other cases the breach is a result of an inadvertent error by employees. The deputy director for health information privacy at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights explained that human error-related breaches are the most common. Another expert explains that “that’s why it’s so important that the workforce is educated and trained properly about how to handle patient information.”

Proper training and safety protocols are just as important when it comes to safeguarding this information as it is to ensuring a safe medical work environment. The Illinois medical malpractice lawyers at our firm understand that the root cause of all of these errors is often a lack of foresight and safety standards at various institutions that place too little importance on preventing human errors. Considering the consequences, there is no excuse for inadequate conduct in this regard. Some strides have been made in recent years, but considering the frequency of the breaches, there is still much room for improvement.

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