Some ethical concerns can apply to any workplace, such as those involving harassment or unfair business practices. Employees everywhere are expected to respect their leaders, colleagues, customers and vendors, and to perform business transactions with integrity. If you work in health care management, you also have ethical as well as legal obligations to protect the rights of patients, particularly with regard to privacy -- whether or not you deal with patients directly. One of the most critical ethical issues specific to health care management involves protecting patient confidentiality.
The American Medical Association
Since 1847, The American Medical Association has held physicians to high standards of integrity with its Code of Ethics. But this code doesn't just apply to physicians who are actively treating patients; it also applies to those administering to the business and administrative needs of a medical organization. All physicians have the ethical responsibility to place patient needs above personal and business interests. While not all physicians are members of the AMA, and not all health care management professionals are physicians, aspects of the AMA Code of Ethics have been adopted by nonmember organizations and state medical licensing boards.
Patient confidentiality is particularly important within the AMA’s Code of Ethics. If you’re a patient, you should be comfortable believing your doctor will hold whatever you say in confidence. The more information you're willing to share, the more thorough your doctor can be in performing tests, diagnosing what’s wrong and determining what’s needed to bring you back to health and keep you healthy. From a management standpoint, the information your doctor enters into your medical records should be treated with the same level of confidentiality as whatever you’ve shared in conversation inside the exam room.
HIPAA and HITECH
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act elevated patient confidentiality from an ethical standard to a legal one. Failing to protect patient information can now cause health care organizations to get slapped with fines. In extreme cases, one or more team members could even face criminal penalties. With so much at stake, health care organization leaders need to know exactly what's expected of their organizations. HIPAA requirements, however, aren't crystal clear when it comes to the complex issue of handling electronic patient data. The Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act, with the highly appropriate acronym of "HITECH," was introduced to fill that gap.
Health-care management leaders provide employees with policies and procedures that describe their ethical and legal responsibilities to confidentiality. These documents must be communicated to everyone who could access patient information in any form. Permanent employees, temporary or contract employees, and even volunteers must be trained to understand the requirements. They must also know what's expected of them when it comes to specific processes that apply to their day-to-day activities. One such process you've probably experienced requires patients to sign consent forms before doctors can share medical information with patients' spouses or health insurance providers.
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