HIPAA is the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act, passed 1996. Its purpose is to require that all hospitals and physician offices in the United States keep electronic medical records on all their patients, allow those records to be quickly shared with other institutions, and also preserve patient privacy. The full text of this act can be found at http://aspe.hhs.gov/admnsimp/pl104191.htm

The law was quite ambitious, and the timetable set for its provisions has not been met. In fact, only one aspect of the law is becoming enforced: the Privacy Rule.

When most people speak of HIPAA, they know only about this Privacy Rule, and not about the overarching goal of Portability. Indeed, this is the only part of the act that is currently enforced. The new emphasis on privacy has had a large number of good and bad effects.

Some of the benefits of HIPAA include an increased awareness of computer security, and increased safeguards for patient privacy both inside and outside of hospitals.

The drawbacks include increased difficulty for patients to access their own information, longer waits for physicians to obtain health records, and increased distance from the community. If a patient's family wants to come and visit, they now may not be told where that patient is, or even whether they are in the hospital. Where before a patient's place of worship would often be told of the illness to pray for them or visit the sick, this is now impossible.

Many people hope that the provisions of HIPAA will be amended or clarified to help patients remain in touch with their community, or that the other provisions will one day become reality. For now the word HIPAA is most often uttered as an excuse as to why someone is about to do something stupid.

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