HIPAA privacy violations: There’s not much you can do about it

HIPAA privacy violations: There’s not much you can do about it

If your doctor shares private medical information about you, they might have violated privacy laws, but there might not be much you can do about it. HIPAA is a law that says doctors and other health care providers can share your personal medical information only in certain situations. They can share information with other doctors in the process of treating you, for example.

If a doctor wrongly shares your information, it can be a harmless slip or a devastating violation of your privacy depending on the situation. But in either case, you can’t file a lawsuit for violation of HIPAA. The law creates a right to privacy, but it doesn’t create a right to sue. And even if you could sue, the law has limits. Only certain entities are covered. It prevents your doctor, or your health care plan, from freely sharing your information, but it doesn’t prevent a friend or family member from blabbing about your medical issues.

What you can do, is file a complaint. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office for Civil Rights, takes complaints and determines whether there will be penalties. Penalties can include fines and the requirement that the entity correct their procedures so it doesn’t happen again. Is that enough?

You could attempt to get around this lawsuit problem by suing under a different cause of action, such as general violation of privacy. But you can’t point to the violation of HIPAA to prove it. You have to prove a regular privacy case, which is when there is public disclosure of private information. You also have to prove that the publicizing of the facts would be offensive to a reasonable person (in other words, you can’t just be extra sensitive), and that the facts aren’t a matter of public concern. You also have to prove damages.

HIPAA says that our privacy must be protected, which is a good thing. But without giving patients the right to file a lawsuit, does it give us as much protection as we think? For the medical providers and others who hold our confidential information, fines are not as good of a deterrent as the possibility of defending a lawsuit if they screw up. 

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