Feds: No Peeking At Medical Records

You may have noticed some extra paperwork in your mailbox from you healthcare provider.

The mail isn't to get you to change health plans, but to notify Americans that new federal rules on medical privacy take effect this week. Among the changes: patients can now see and make changes to their medical records.

The Early Show medical correspondent Dr. Emily Senay explains how these new rules will affect Americans and why some groups consider them controversial.

President Clinton first issued the new rules, but they were only enacted this week and with some changes, explains Dr. Senay.

Just before leaving office in January of 2001, President Clinton issued the changes in medical privacy rules. However, the Bush Administration has waited until now to implement the guidelines, and in the meantime made changes to the original Clinton Administration plan.

Dr. Senay lists the following as specific medical privacy rule changes to be aware of:

  • Patients Can View Medical Records: Patients will now be able to get their hands on their own medical records. And if they feel as if those records are somehow incomplete or wrong, they can talk with the doctor about changing them. Now, if the doctor, for some reason, doesn't agree with the patient, then the patient can issue a complaint, which becomes a part of your file.
  • Insurers Can't Share Information With Employers: In the past, an employer may have asked the insurer about an employee's health records and he or she would not have been breaking the law. Now, this won't be allowed. In some past cases, the companies were using medical information against employees, even firing some they thought were raising the company's health care costs too high.
  • Pharmacies Can't Share Information With Third Parties: In the past, pharmacies have shared patients records with drug companies to help them with the marketing of drugs. This will no longer be allowed. Also, when you go to the pharmacist, you'll notice some changes. For instance, if you are picking up a prescription for someone, you'll be asked what your relationship with that person is and if you are aware of new privacy rules. Pharmacists are also not allowed to talk about any specific drugs patients may be taking in front of other customers
  • Doctors Must Shield Information: In order to keep your medical conditions private, expect changes at your next visit to the doctor. For instance, when you sign in, you probably won't have to indicate the reasons for your visit. Special hoods will be placed on computers so office personnel will be the only one who can see your information. And many times when your chart is left on the door outside the examining room, your name is easy to read. Now many doctors will be turning those charts around so the names aren't visible to everyone in the office. The reason for all these changes is so that your personal information stays private.

Not everybody is happy with the new rules. Last week, a group of consumer and health care providers challenged the rules in court. The protestors of the changes feel that the new rules will actually diminish a patient's privacy. For instance, even with the changes, a pharmacy can look at your records in order to properly fill out a prescription. And insurance companies can look at your medical records in order to properly process a bill.

When the rules were first drawn up, they contained an amendment that would have required a patient's signature before any confidential information was handed out. However, there is no such provision in the final version of these rules.

If the new rules are violate patients cannot sue, which has also angered some critics of these new rules. Instead, patients who feel the rules were violated can file a grievance with the government. The government will then consider the complaint and can penalize the person or group that violated the new privacy rules.