By Emory Dossmann
 
Most of us have heard of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, commonly called ‘HIPAA,’ but few of us truly understand what it means to us as patients. Simply put, HIPAA, or more specifically, the HIPAA Privacy Rule, gives us rights over our health information, sets rules and limits on who can access our information and establishes security safeguards to protect our information.
 
But HIPAA does something else for us – it mandates that we, as patients, have a right to access our own health records. This access allows us to have corrections made to our information if necessary, and it ensures that we are advised about how our information can be used and who has had access to it.
 
These rights are protected by the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office for Civil Rights (OCR), which encourages us, as patients and health care consumers, to do the following:
 
·        Get copies of our medical records and other health information. We should be prepared to make the request in writing and to pay for the cost of copying or mailing the records, but we should remember that health care providers are required to provide these records in electronic form if that is how they are kept. Typically, health care providers must comply with our requests within 30 days.
 
·        Review our medical records to ensure that all information is accurate. If we notice that something is missing, incomplete or incorrect, we can ask our health care providers to update our records. Generally speaking, these corrections must be made within 60 days.
 
·        Find out who has accessed our medical records. By law, our health information can be used and shared for reasons not related directly to our care, but in many of these cases, we can find out who has seen our information. We can ask that our health information not be shared with certain people, groups or companies, and although we can ask for other restrictions, we should remember that our health care providers do not always have to agree with those requests, particularly if they could affect our care.
 
·        File a complaint if our rights are violated. OCR empowers all of us with the ability to file a formal complaint if we believe our health information privacy or access rights have been violated. We can complain in writing by email, fax, letter or electronic means within 180 days of when the violation occurred.
 
Having copies of our medical records is crucial. We may need them if we’re evacuated to another area during a disaster, or if we switch to a new doctor, or if we want to find out if something in those records is inaccurate. There are dozens of reasons we might need our medical records, but the most important one is that having our records provides us with a bird’s eye view of our own health histories. By having this complete picture of our health, we can make better, more informed decisions about our care.
 
We can be proactive in our health, but action requires information, and information is power. Thanks to HIPAA, we can take power over our health. Learn more about your rights by reading this informational piece from the OCR.