HIPAA Mandates Disguises to Protect Patient Privacy | by Mark Salamon | Sep, 2021

Anyone who has been to a doctor since 2004 is familiar with HIPAA, or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which is a piece of landmark legislation designed to protect patient’s privacy by having them sign so many forms that they don’t have time to notice that their next door neighbor is in the waiting room.

Interestingly, the COVID pandemic has dramatically improved privacy at healthcare facilities. With policies in place such as social distancing, mask wearing, and waiting in the car to be hurried into the exam room, even wanted fugitives can go to the doctor without fear of being discovered. But as more Americans become vaccinated and restrictions are gradually lifted, HIPAA enthusiasts in congress are scrambling to enact several amendments to the law to prevent the deterioration of this new level of privacy. The most notable of these is a requirement that healthcare facilities provide disguises free of charge to all patients at check-in.

Feedback from trial runs has been mixed. Facility managers have balked at the cost, but legislators insist that the minimum acceptable disguise — plastic glasses with fake nose and mustache — should be within the means of most institutions. They also point to an exception that allows facilities that meet certain criteria to use less expensive options such as paper bags with eye-holes cut into them.

An additional measure requires that patients be given a pseudonym of their choosing to be used when calling them back to the treatment area. Because this is cost-neutral, many facilities have embraced this practice, and have taken to using famous people’s names in an effort to cheer up disgruntled patients and lighten the mood.

Patients will still be required to sign the HIPAA information forms, which have been updated to make them longer and include tips for patients who are interested in taking further measures to protect their privacy, such as speaking in a foreign accent and taking Uber so no one recognizes their car.

Patients, on the whole, have been receptive. The most enthusiastic responses came from those in physical therapy clinics, where open-space layouts make protecting privacy a real challenge. “I used to dread walking back to that crowded gym. It seemed like everyone I knew was there, and people just can’t mind their own business,” said one patient who identified herself only as Meryl Streep.

Meryl, who perfected her thick Scottish brogue in a single weekend by binge-watching five seasons of “Outlander,” was one of several patients we interviewed who had willingly paid an extra fee to wear the paper bag and the fake nose and mustache. “It’s a little hard to breathe,” she admitted, “but until we have another pandemic, it will have to do.”


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