Privacy is a term that is frequently used although it still remains a complex term that has proven difficult to define in a universally acceptable way. It is something that exists on a personal level and often means a different thing from one person to another. While this confusion persists, privacy addresses the issue of personal information in terms of who gets access to them and under what conditions.
The UN Declaration of Human Rights recognizes privacy as a fundamental human right, and nearly every country in the world recognizes the right to privacy in their constitution. In the health sector, the importance of protecting the privacy, confidentiality, and security of health information is very important.
This is why government privacy regulations like the US Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) is meant to regulate the privacy of health information by the health care providers, health insurers as well as any other entity.
So, is health privacy a human right as it should? The answer will come after considering various aspects of health privacy.
The importance of health privacy
For a long time now, a number of theorists have depicted that privacy is a basic human right that is valuable and contributes largely to the general human well- being. In their arguments, respecting people’s privacy means recognizing the attributes that make a person morally unique.
As a subset of human right to privacy, any breach of health privacy not only affects human dignity but also causes harm emotionally, mentally and psychologically. For instance, when individual health information is leaked to a family member, friend, insurer, employer or any member of the society, it usually leads to stigmatization, discrimination, and even embarrassment.
Health privacy is important in ensuring effective and quality health care delivery. It a state where there is no assurance of health privacy, patients will have to choose between complete disclosure of sensitive information to their physicians for a proper diagnosis or being reluctant about it in order to save themselves from embarrassments. In the absence of an effective communication between physicians and patients, the quality of healthcare is affected which leads to suffering, stress and even death. While this may be true, it does not affect people equally because what may be considered private by one person may not be the case by others.
Quality healthcare is a right for every citizen and the fact that people will stop seeking care simply because there is lack of privacy and confidentiality is wrong. This is usually the case with adolescence when it comes to reproductive health and drug abuse.
Health privacy promotes personal autonomy which is very important in the healthcare industry. There are many decisions that patients have to make concerning their health and it is very important that these decisions be made without any external pressure. Healthcare in the United States is rather expensive, and for many individuals the out-of-pocket costs are challenging. There are certain ways to lower these costs, but still; if these individuals are threatened by the lack of privacy, they might turn away from seeking professional medical health.
Research is the only way that improvements and discoveries are made in the health sector and it is necessary that individuals participate for it to succeed. When privacy is not assured, many people will not be able to participate and those who choose to participate should do so on their own will without any coercion or pressure.
Even when there is no tangible harm or embarrassments, health privacy allows people to develop interpersonal relationships with other people. These relationships can be social, intimate or any other and people should have the last say on who should access their private information or not. In order to maintain relationships, it is necessary for people to alter their behavior and this will not be successful without any form of privacy.
For instance, there are relationships that are more likely to be affected by the disclosure of sensitive health information. This is why the health information that is shared with a doctor is different from that which is shared with your employer.
The state of health privacy
In free society where every human right is respected, personal choices and privacy should also be valued. Health information usually describes a person’s life in summary not only in terms of health status but also social and financial status.
This is why health privacy is a major concern for many people who would even engage in risky behavior to protect it. These include lying about symptoms, withholding information, providing wrong information, avoiding insurance cover and even avoiding health care altogether. When this happens, it shows just how far people are willing to go in order to protect their health privacy.
With the advancements in technology, people are increasingly getting concerned about the protection of health privacy.
These technologies include:
- Identification systems
Multi-use identity cards using magnetic stripes and microprocessor technology as well as biometrics that are demanded for identification and authentication are being used by governments and companies are being used all over the world, and they are a major concern when it comes to health information privacy.
- Communication surveillance
Law enforcement agencies are known to have wiretapping capabilities when it comes to telephone, telex and fax communications. There is also email and internet interception as well as the national security system that often abuse on a large scale leading to data breaches all over.
- Video and workplace surveillance
The use of CCTV cameras for surveillance with excellent clarity even in pitch darkness, as well as automatic recognition, has tremendously increased all over the world. This is a technology that can bring any form of public privacy to its knees and it is even worse now that managers are using it to monitor almost every aspect of their employees’ lives.
Abuse of visual and communication surveillance by the employers and law enforcement agencies is something of great concern, and there are no signs that they will come to an end any soon.
Health privacy is covered under the right to privacy but is it being protected, or you have a reason to be concerned? Since privacy has never been well defined, it is seldom enforced and subject to manipulation often due to competing interests. This is the reason why privacy and security have been used interchangeably whereby privacy concerns have been intentionally misdirected to security discussions.
The institutions that are responsible for ensuring the right to privacy are busy talking about and enforcing security rather than privacy. So, your right to health privacy is in the hands of the institutions like the HIPAA which controls how your hospital shares your health data. This means that in case of a data breach, which usually happens through hacking, bugs and system failure, you have no private right to take any action. This may be with the exception of a few states but what about the majority states?
The importance of health privacy in any society cannot be underestimated. With the health data being consolidated around big institutions like the HIPAA, it is necessary that these institutions be transparent on how this data is being used and protected in order to preserve this right.
Technology is transforming the health industry like it is being used by Weiss-Aug to produce a variety of medical device components but on the other hand; it still remains the greatest threat to health privacy which is a human right.