Nurses & Providers: Get to Know the HITECH Act

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The Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act is an important part of President Obama’s stimulus package—known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. This act represents the first significant commitment of federal resources to support the widespread adoption of electronic health records, or EHRs. As of August 2012, 54 percent of the eligible Medicare and Medicaid professionals had registered for the meaningful use incentive program. Meaningful use is still in the process of being defined on a state-by-state basis. However, the overall definition of meaningful use of EHRs embodies:

  • Improving quality of health care, safety and efficiency of health care
  • Engaging patients and family to review and inspect EHRs for accuracy
  • Improve care coordination among hospitals, providers and pharmacies
  • Maintain privacy and security of patient health information

What are the Benefits of Electronic Health Records (EHRs)?

When properly implemented, the benefits of EHRs far outweigh paper records. Care coordination is among the biggest advantages of EHRs. When all provider team members can communicate efficiently, patients definitely benefit. In a crisis, EHRs provide instant access to information about a patient’s medical history, medications and allergies. One study found that many emergency medics said they greatly benefitted from access to pre-existing health information through electronic records. Emergency personnel reported that this information was especially helpful for patients with frequent emergencies or those who were unconscious or otherwise unable to provide information. Other benefits include cost savings and accurate and complete information about a patient’s health. The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs was one of the first to adopt health IT and exchange; they report that savings from preventing adverse drug reactions alone total an estimated $4.64 billion.

How Does the HITECH Act Specifically Affect Nurses?

The security of personal health records has always been critical within the healthcare industry. As healthcare professionals, the protection of personal health information (PHI) is just as important as the patient care delivered. In 1996, HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability Act) set national standards for the security of electronic protected health data. The HITECH Act widens the requirements of HIPAA to include the business associates of covered entities and includes a Breach Notification Rule. In a nutshell, the Breach Notification Rule requires health care providers to notify patients when there is a breach of unsecured personal health information.

Since nurses are often involved in the transmission of PHI, they need a basic understanding of the new security rules as they pertain to the HITECH Act. All PHI must be encrypted prior to transmission. Here is just one example: an emergency room nurse must send medical documentation to a patient’s insurance provider to validate the need for additional tests to be run. When transmitting that protected health information, the nurse must ensure that the information is delivered in an encrypted form, so that it cannot be used by an unauthorized party.

So, what this means is that nurses and health organizations have to answer key questions when requests are made for electronic health records.

  • Does the EHR have the capability to comply with requests for electronic access?
  • How will patients receive an electronic copy of the data?
  • What security protections will be employed to secure the electronic access (i.e. encryption, passwords)?
  • Will it be documented and time stamped when EHRs are issued to the patient?
  • Will the organization instruct patients on protecting this electronic information?

Learn more about the HITECH Act and the implementation of EHRs: Providers & Professionals resources

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