Privacy In A Time Of Pandemic: Artificial Intelligence To Protect Patients
Artificial Intelligence – Since March, several celebrities, including Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson, Idris Elba, sports figures and members of Congress have announced that they were infected with COVID-19. Hanks and Elba framed their Instagram posts with public health messages to urge others to self-quarantine and heed public health warnings about social isolation. Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert included a dose of remorse for having challenged the severity of the risk when he contracted the virus after grabbing mics from the press pool, infecting several teammates.
The point in repeating these stories is that in each case, a well-known person chose to reveal his or her health status. In recent years, many celebrities have taken this route, from Angelina Jolie with breast cancer treatment to Justin Bieber with Lyme disease.
Some make these revelations as a form of public education, but others may do it as a preemptive measure, to avoid the speculation and scrutiny that comes when a public figure is rumored to be sick, pregnant, dying or supporting a family member who is. In such cases, “insider snooping” (the term for when hospital staff search patient health records to learn more about what’s going on with certain patients) can lead to unauthorized and widespread public disclosure of personal health information (PHI).
Sometimes tabloids bribe hospital staff to sell such information to them; other times, social media becomes a sure-fire route for spreading rumors and information about “local” people, including those who may have been involved in car accidents, or victims of crime.
With the highly charged atmosphere created by the COVID-19 pandemic, the risks of exposing patient health data have grown. Hospital compliance officials already struggle to protect patient data from exposure. In the 2020 Protenus Breach Barometer, it was found that 572 incidents exposed more than 41 million patient records. Health care compliance analytics helps hospitals across the country to amplify the efforts of compliance professionals to reduce risk and secure patient privacy with the ultimate goal of building trust among health systems, their employees and their patients.
Health care compliance analytics uses artificial intelligence to assess every single access of patient records, which can be tens of millions of times per month in a mid-sized hospital and will alert hospitals of suspicious behavior that could pose a threat to the patient and organization. By watching for suspicious activity in the medical record, staff who monitor hospital compliance with federal privacy regulations, like HIPAA laws, can open investigations and act quickly to prevent public disclosure of patient information.
In the current pandemic, having this capacity is essential to protect the privacy of every hospitalized patient, especially those who are being treated for COVID-19. Imagine that you are among the physicians, nurses or other hospital staff in critical condition in hospitals across the country — wouldn’t you want your privacy ensured? In each case, the hospital and the local public health departments will inform those with whom you have been in contact about their risk of exposure, but curious or concerned co-workers may let curiosity get the best of them and breach privacy to check on their co-worker’s condition. Despite the current exceptions to some HIPAA regulations, which allow hospitals to more readily share patient information with first responders and other hospitals, such snooping remains a major HIPAA violation, subject to penalties and fines.
Many hospitals are bringing on temporary staff or calling back their retired staff members to cover gaps created by staff who are infected by the virus or under quarantine. Health care compliance analytics in that situation can ensure that these staff, who may not have time to get up-to-speed on the nuances of privacy law, will themselves be covered by a system that protects patient privacy.
In the meantime, what else can hospital systems do to protect patient privacy when so many hospitals face moving compliance staff to other roles throughout their facilities? Every organization, regardless of their privacy posture, should stay up to date on the latest announcements from the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Health (OCR) and Human Services. It’s essential to know what HIPAA exceptions are in place and what is still being enforced. OCR has created a new webpage to easily provide this information. Compliance professionals can also sign up for various newsletters and listservs to get the latest information delivered to their inbox.
Health systems should also ensure best practices are leveraged to ensure privacy is protected for every patient seeking care within their organization. These best practices include proactively reducing risk across your organization by enforcing policy and procedures, increasing compliance professional efficiency so they can do more with less and using technology to automatically audit all access to patient data.
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