Protecting Patient Rights as a Health Care Professional

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As a health care professional involved directly with patient care, you will usually interact with a patient more often than other professionals during the patient’s care. This puts you in an important position as the patient’s advocate. And one of the best ways to help protect your patient is to know what rights they have and how you can support them.

Many patient rights involve access to medical records, billing, and insurance plans. Others cover the more technical side of your personal care, such as advanced directives. However, in this article, we will focus on the basic patient rights involved in direct bedside patient care. 

Basic Patient Rights

All patients have the right to basic patient rights. You’ll see many of these rights written out in every list of patient rights, and they are the ones that have the most direct impact on the care that you, as a health professional, provide to patients. 

Of course, each specialty will have its own challenges. Sometimes, different specialties are licensed and governed under different laws or regulations. But if you advocate for the basics for your patients, you can make sure that they receive the best quality care.

Treat Your Patients with Dignity and Respect

First and forever foremost is treating patients with both dignity and respect. Our patients come to us at what are often the lowest points of their lives. They may be scared or frustrated. Some may have conditions that make it very difficult for them to understand what is happening around them. 

Sometimes, this can be frustrating for the caregivers involved in their care. Take the time to have patience and understanding, and encourage other caregivers to do the same if needed. Don’t talk down to patients or judge them. Speak loudly enough for them to hear but calmly enough that if they are struggling, you can help make the situation less scary. 

Regardless of a patient’s situation or condition, every patient deserves to feel dignified. They should feel clean and comfortable. With patients who are unconscious, always treat them as if they can hear and see you. Talk to them respectfully as you would any other patient.

Lastly, keep in mind that our patients come from all varieties of cultures and upbringings. They could be from a different country or ethnic group, or they may have different religious or political beliefs than you do. 

If a patient is not from the same culture you are from, take the time to learn if there are any major differences that could affect either care or your interactions. Incorporate what you can within reason, and let other health professionals involved in the care know so they can be respectful, too.

Protect Your Patient’s Personal Health Information (PHI)

Every health professional learns about HIPAA when they first enter the health care field. Protect your patient’s personal information, and follow HIPAA guidelines. When in doubt, don’t say or post on social media anything about work and your patients. It’s important to leave work at work for your own mental and physical health, and in this case, knowing how to draw that line between your work and personal life can also help you avoid revealing a patient’s PHI.

When at work, don’t access a patient’s chart if you aren’t directly involved in that patient’s care. Most of our electronic medical record software lets us access the records of any patient in our unit, sometimes accidentally. Each time you access a patient’s record is tracked in the system and many software systems will send alerts to administrators if they think you are accessing a record inappropriately.

It doesn’t matter if the patient is related to you or a friend you know outside of work. If you aren’t involved in that patient’s care, don’t access their records. When you walk away from a computer or tablet, log off or use whatever screen blocker that may be available to you, so no one can use your login to access PHI while your back is turned.

In addition to proper technology use, be aware of non-electronic sources of PHI throughout your shift. Don’t leave out anything with patient information in common areas, like shift report notes. Keep them on your person or somewhere safe where other people cannot access it accidentally or intentionally. Use your tools responsibly.

Empower Patients to Make Informed Decisions

Each patient has the right to any information about their care and to decide for themselves how, when, or if they want to receive that care. Patients have the right to refuse care in most cases. Sometimes, those decisions are left up to the law, such as the licensed and regulated use of restraints to prevent hurting themselves. But as one of the health professionals involved in their care, you can play a vital part in making sure patients have access to all the information they need to make these often difficult decisions. 

Sometimes, a patient may make a decision that you strongly disagree with, either due to personal values or cultural beliefs. Remember that it is the patient’s right to make these decisions. Going back to the first basic patient right, respect your patient’s decisions, and continue to treat them with the highest level of quality care as you would any other patient. 

If there is a language barrier, advocate for your patient to get the information they need in a language they clearly understand. They can’t make the best-informed decision for themselves if they don’t completely understand their diagnosis or their treatment options. 

Many facilities will have access to language interpretation resources, either through an on-site interpreter for larger organizations or via a call-in phone line. If you work in facilities where there are typically language barriers with patients and health professionals, ask the nurse manager or administrator about what resources are available and how to access them.

Encourage Patients to Participate in Their Care

In the same sense of treating your patients with dignity and respect, encourage your patients to participate in their own care. This not only helps patients feel like they are in control and feel self-respect in a time when things may seem out of their control. 

If the end goal of treatment is to return them back to their life before needing care, or to help them be more independent, participating in their care now can help them return to their normal lives in many ways. It can help reinforce any new information they may be learning, identify any areas where they might not understand, and prevent them from forming bad habits early on. A common example is learning proper wound care.

Where to Find Information on Patient Rights

In addition to basic patient rights, you should be aware of all patient rights in your state and the facilities you work in, especially if you work in specialized areas. Although many state and federal rights can be found in the rights defined by facilities, make it a priority to understand what is legally protected and encouraged by law.

Facilities

Hospitals and medical facilities have their own patient bill of rights. These are most often included in the forms patients read and sign when they first seek care at any particular health care center. You can usually find patient rights on the organization’s website. Or you can ask the charge nurse or director of nursing at your facility.

Be aware that different facilities may be licensed and regulated for different treatments. For example, some behavioral and mental health facilities may be licensed to use restraints. If you are working at a facility with these expectations, know how those regulations directly affect you and the care you are involved with before you start working. 

State and Federal Laws

Some patient rights are determined by federal laws, but each state is allowed to define its own set of rights. For example, the California Hospital Association determined 23 patient rights and compiled them into an easy-to-read reference that you can find through the California Health Information Association. 

Other states may have their patient rights written into their administrative code. A quick internet search of your state and “patient rights” or “patient bill of rights” can point you in the right direction. You may even find ongoing discussions of expanding patient rights in certain states. 

Most federal laws regarding patient rights involve ensuring a patient’s access to medical billing and govern the use of PHI in addition to the basics. You can find many of these rights outlined from sources like Medicare and HIPAA. 

Just as everything in the medical field is always changing and adapting to new environments, so do patient rights, the most recent example being the Affordable Care Act. Although they don’t tend to change often, stay up to date on any changes to patient rights nationally or in your area so you can make sure your patients are receiving the best quality care.

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