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Patient consent: What you need to know

Patient consent: What you need to know

Consent allows patients to control the use and disclosure of their protected health information (PHI). It ensures their privacy and security are protected. Healthcare providers and organizations need to understand the different types of patient consent, the challenges in obtaining consent, and the benefits of patient consent. 


Types of patient consent

Under HIPAA, healthcare providers and organizations may need to obtain various types of patient consent, including:


General consent

General consent is obtained at the beginning of a patient's relationship with a healthcare provider. It covers the use of PHI for treatment, payment, and healthcare operations. Typically, a HIPAA compliant authorization form is used to obtain general consent.


Specific consent

Specific consent is required to use or disclose PHI for research or marketing. It is obtained through a form of consent that clearly explains what information will be used or disclosed, for what purposes, and who will receive it.


Emergency consent

Emergency consent is obtained when obtaining written consent from the patient is impossible due to an emergency. Verbal communication is used to get emergency consent, and healthcare providers and organizations must document the circumstances under which it was obtained.


Implied consent

Implied consent is inferred from a patient's actions, indicating their agreement to use or disclose their PHI. For example, when a patient shows up for a scheduled appointment, they may be considered to have given implied consent for using their PHI for treatment purposes.


Revoking consent

Patients have the right to revoke their consent at any time. Healthcare providers and organizations must comply with this request. The process of revoking consent must be clearly explained to patients, including information on how to revoke their consent.

Go deeper: 


Challenges in obtaining patient consent

Obtaining patient consent can present various challenges, which healthcare providers and organizations must address to ensure compliance with HIPAA regulations:


Incomplete forms

Incomplete or inconsistent consent forms can lead to confusion and errors in using or disclosing patient health information. It is necessary to provide clear and concise information in consent forms and ensure they are complete, accurate, and properly documented.


Inadequate patient understanding

Patients may not fully understand the consequences of giving or withholding their consent, leading to mistakes in the use or disclosure of their health information.


Difficulties in revoking consent

Revoking consent is a right granted to patients under HIPAA. However, it can be challenging for healthcare providers and organizations to comply with this request if they have not properly documented the consent process.


Balancing privacy and patient care

Obtaining patient consent can sometimes conflict with the need to provide timely and effective patient care, especially in emergency situations. Healthcare providers and organizations must balance respecting patient privacy and ensuring prompt and appropriate care.


Ensuring compliance with HIPAA regulations

HIPAA regulations constantly evolve, and healthcare providers and organizations must stay informed about the latest requirements and updates. Ensuring compliance with these regulations can be challenging, requiring ongoing training and monitoring of consent processes and procedures.


Protecting PHI

HIPAA mandates the implementation of appropriate safeguards to protect patient health information. However, implementing technical, physical, and administrative safeguards can be complex and costly, particularly for smaller healthcare organizations. 

Read more: What are administrative, physical and technical safeguards? 


The benefits of patient consent

Obtaining patient consent offers several benefits to healthcare providers, patients, and the healthcare system as a whole:


Improving quality of care

Patients can receive more coordinated and effective care by obtaining consent to share health information between healthcare providers. Consent enables healthcare providers to make informed decisions and provide personalized treatment plans.


Compliance with HIPAA regulations

Obtaining patient consent is a requirement under HIPAA regulations. Complying with these regulations is necessary to avoid significant fines and penalties.


Ensuring security and preventing breaches

Patient consent ensures that health information is used and disclosed in a manner that protects its security and privacy. This helps prevent breaches of patient information and builds trust with patients and other stakeholders.


Supporting research and innovation

Patient consent plays a significant role in supporting research and innovation in healthcare. It allows researchers to access health information while protecting patients' privacy. Consent enables advancements in medical research and the development of innovative treatments.

See also: HIPAA Compliant Email: The Definitive Guide   


In the news

Martha Smith-Lightfoot's suspension for a HIPAA violation is a significant example of the repercussions that can arise from disregarding patient consent protocols. By taking a list of over 3,000 patients' information without proper authorization, Smith-Lightfoot violated HIPAA regulations and also breached the trust between healthcare providers and patients. 

Notably, the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) faced a $15,000 fine for the breach. This case shows the reason for obtaining explicit consent before disclosing PHI, and stresses the impact of consent policies and staff training in healthcare institutions.



What information needs to be included in a HIPAA consent form?

HIPAA consent form is detailed and must include specifics such as:

  • the purpose of disclosure,
  • entities involved,
  • and the expiration date.

This ensures clarity and transparency regarding the scope and duration of the authorization.


Can a patient revoke their consent later?

Absolutely. Patients can revoke their consent at any time, granting them control over their PHI. However, this revocation might not apply to information already used or disclosed based on the prior authorization. 


Can covered entities deny treatment if a patient refuses to provide consent for routine operations?

Healthcare entities are prohibited from linking treatment to providing consent for routine operations under HIPAA regulations. The Privacy Rule states that treatment, payment, and enrollment eligibility must not be conditioned on obtaining consent for uses and disclosures not permitted by HIPAA. 


Are healthcare organizations required to ask patients for consent or authorization to share their PHI with public health authorities?

For public health reporting requirements, consult specific guidance from HHS. Unlike routine disclosures, public health reporting may not always require patient consent or authorization, especially in situations where it is mandated by law or deemed necessary to protect public health.

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