New Patient Privacy Laws Go Into Effect

Callers will be hearing the phrase "We're not able to give out any information about the patient" from hospital telephone operators more often now.

New federally mandated privacy rules that went into effect today allow patients to keep their names and condition private, even from loved ones and relatives. Patients also have new legal rights to demand all of their medical records from hospitals and doctors.

The regulations stem from the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, which Congress passed in 1996. The measure was designed to protect patients' medical records and develop standards for electronic transfer of their medical data. Health-care providers today began giving each patient written notification of the law.

The new rules have hospitals and doctors all over the country scrambling to ensure that they're in compliance with the standards.

Rules Address Patients’ Privacy Worries

The Leahy Clinic, a hospital outside of Boston, spent the past 18 months training workers for this new day in patient privacy. Dr. Sanford Kurtz, head of the Leahy Clinic, says the privacy regulations are the most sweeping reforms since Medicare.

The new regulation "sets a minimum requirement for privacy protection," says Kurtz.

One of the most significant reforms prevents insurance companies from disclosing a worker's medical history to an employer.

"Most people are terribly worried that their bosses are going to find out about conditions that they have," says Janlori Goldman, director of the Health Privacy Project, a Washington-based health-privacy advocacy group. "They are worried about being discriminated against on the job, [or] they won't get a job or a promotion, so this will really go a long way toward protecting people in their jobs."

Hospitals Scramble to Comply

With so much information stored electronically that could potentially get into the hands of the wrong people, patients' medical records need to be shielded more than ever. Some doctors are now keeping them under lock and key at all times, removing patients' names from the outer covers and putting old records through a shredder instead of tossing them in a trash can.

One oncology center in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., spent $15,000 to comply with the new regulations, adding hooded computers and a private consultation room. Dr. James Brown, head of oncology at Associates in Oncology in Gaithersburg, Md., fears the money and the paperwork needed to back up the regulations will end up cheating the very people they are meant to protect.

"We're clearly going to do this but what happens is that the time and effort and resources that are put into doing this are probably going to come out of something other than we would want done for our patients," he says.

But patients may also feel freer to seek the care they need, knowing their medical secrets will remain just that — secret.

ABCNEWS's Jackie Judd contributed to this story.