Caring for Patients While Respecting Their Privacy: Renewing Our Commitment

Jeanette Ives Erickson, RN, MS; Sally Millar, RN, MBA

Disclosures

Online J Issues Nurs. 2005;10(2) 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction

Abstract

In 1996, HIPAA or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) was enacted into law. This law has had a significant impact on the health care industry including the need for numerous changes in the way we communicate with our patients, their families, and with each other. This law provides rights to patients and safeguards for employees. It affects everyone in a health care setting. Since the days in which the Nightingale Pledge was written, nursing has stressed the importance of confidentiality regarding all patient matters. The current Code of Ethics for Nurses (ANA, 2001) is clear in intent and meaning as it relates to the nurse's role in promoting and advocating for patient's rights related to privacy and confidentiality. For nurses, HIPAA is an endorsement of our previously articulated responsibility to our patients. The purpose of this article is to remind nurses of the importance of keeping patient information private. This reminder will come first as HIPAA is reviewed and the implications of this Act for nurses is discussed. The reminder will also come as challenges to maintaining privacy and strategies for promoting privacy are presented.

Introduction

Privacy and confidentiality are basic rights in our society. Safeguarding those rights, with respect to an individual's personal health information, is our ethical and legal obligation as health care providers. Doing so in today's health care environment is increasingly challenging.

Every nurse understands and respects the need for patient confidentiality. As professionals, our connection to our patients and our colleagues depends on it. But, the truth is, advanced technology, new demands in health care, and developments in the world-at-large, make it more and more difficult to keep this promise. But keep it we must!

As nurses, through the Nightingale Pledge and all subsequent nursing codes, we have identified the need for confidentiality; we made this point long before national legislation was ever contemplated. The Code for Nurses, published by the American Nurses Association (ANA) Ethics Committees, "is the standard by which ethical conduct is guided and evaluated by the profession" (ANA, 1994, p.1). Provision 3 of the current Code of Ethics for Nurses states: "The nurse promotes, advocates for, and strives to protect the health, safety, and rights of the patient" (ANA, 2001). The interpretive statements, 3.1 and 3.2, are explicit in their language regarding privacy and confidentiality (ANA, 2001) ( Exhibit A ), and should be used by nurses to guide clinical practice and to set organizational policy.

As health care workers, we see and hear confidential information every day. Our practice is full of this kind of information. Occasionally, we become so comfortable with patient information that it can be easy to forget how important it is to keep information private. Thus, it is important to review the Privacy Section of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and use it to identify opportunities to better protect patient confidentiality. This article will remind nurses about the importance of keeping patient information private. This reminder will come first as HIPAA is reviewed and the implications of this Act for nurses are discussed. The reminder will also come as challenges to maintaining privacy and strategies for promoting privacy are presented.

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