Medical Office Assistants,
HIPAA (Privacy), and OSHA (Safety)

Health care is regulated to keep patients safe and protect employees from injury on the job. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets safety standards for workplaces, while the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) governs health insurance policies and patients’ personal health information.

As a medical office assistant, everything you do at work is affected by these rules. Here’s what you need to know about the OSHA and HIPAA guidelines you’ll work with every day.

Medical Office Assistants and HIPAA

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) was created to achieve these goals.

  • Modernize the health care system through electronic recordkeeping
  • Standardize health care coverage
  • Regulate how personally identifiable medical information is stored and shared among health care providers

Rules are established by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and cover broad areas including security, policies and procedures, staff training, and data access.

Security

Medical facilities must ensure records with personal identifiers, such as name, address, date of birth, and Social Security number are adequately safeguarded to prevent unauthorized access. Data stored electronically must be password protected, and paper documents must be held in locked filing cabinets or rooms.

Policies and Procedures

All facilities must have written policies and procedures detailing how private health information is stored, accessed, and shared. Offices must designate a HIPAA privacy officer to handle inquiries and complaints.

Because medical office assistants are responsible for records management, understanding these rules and knowing whom to refer patients to for guidance are essential.

Staff Training

Staff members must complete HIPAA training before starting their jobs and must retake the training at least once annually. Training must include information on HIPAA regulations and specific policies and procedures, since they vary. Vocational schools teach students the basics, while employers fill in the gaps with workplace-based education.

Data Access

Private health information is accessible only to authorized personnel who need it to provide patient care or assist with billing. Any other access is strictly prohibited and a matter of trust between doctors and clients.

Exceptions include law enforcement officers who may obtain information with a warrant or subpoena and mandatory reporting of child or elder abuse.

As a medical office assistant, it’s your role to abide by these guidelines.

  • Positively identify individuals requesting access to medical records.
  • Protect your personal passwords and change them regularly.
  • Log out of electronic medical records before walking away from your desk.
  • Shred unnecessary paperwork.
  • Converse with patients and coworkers privately.
  • Fax sensitive information with cover sheets and HIPAA disclosures.
  • Review rights and consent forms with patients and their representatives.
  • Safeguard keys to filing cabinets.

Never Talk to Family and Friends About Patients

Medical office assistants are compassionate. What they see and hear affects them emotionally, so naturally, they may want to share the details of a long day with loved ones.

However, it’s so difficult to separate personal identifiers from general information, so it’s safer to keep patients out of conversations altogether. The repercussions of violating HIPAA include financial penalties up to $50,000 per occurrence for employers and possible job loss. It’s not worth the risk.

Don’t Open Medical Records Unless You’re on the Case

It’s tempting to peek at medical records out of curiosity, but don’t. Access is limited to staff who are actively involved in the case. Billions in fines have been levied against institutions that failed to adequately protect data.

Patients’ Rights

Under HIPAA, patients have these rights.

  • See and get copies of their medical records with notice
  • Request that errors are corrected
  • Designate who may or may not access their data
  • Indicate which details may be shared with whom and when
  • Appoint a personal representative
  • Know who has seen their records
  • Provide contact information

Medical Office Assistants and OSHA

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was created in 1971 to enforce safety and health standards in the workplace. As a medical office assistant, these rules are both a protection and responsibility. Safety on the job is a team effort.

OSHA sets standards in the areas of exit routes, fire and electrical safety, blood-borne pathogens, radiation, staff notification and training, injury and illness reporting, hazard communication, and on-site inspections.

Exit Routes

Health care facilities should have enough exit routes to safely accommodate the maximum number of people in the building, with two exits being the minimum. Exit routes should be located as far from each other as possible in case one becomes blocked by smoke or fire.

A diagram must be posted in the lobby, with exits being clearly marked. No objects should block the exits, and the building plan should consider how patients in wheelchairs would escape.

Medical office assistants help ensure exit routes stay clear by storing equipment properly. In a crisis, they may assist mobility challenged patients in leaving the building, so they should know where exit routes are located and where they lead.

Fire and Electrical Safety

Electrical faults are a leading cause of medical facility fires. Overburdened outlets, damaged wiring, and improper use of extension cords are usually responsible. Employers are required to teach staff how to anticipate, recognize, and prevent hazards.

Medical office assistants help keep their workplace safe by cooperating with these protocols and reporting concerns, such as frayed wiring or flickering lights, to supervisors immediately.

Bloodborne Pathogens

Medical office assistants don’t provide hands-on care, but they work in close enough proximity with clinical staff to risk accidental exposure to blood. Precautions include keeping used needles in a marked, puncture-proof sharps container, wearing personal protective equipment, using clean-up kits for spills, and getting vaccinated against hepatitis B.

OSHA’s Bloodborne Pathogens Standard mandates employers have an exposure control plan, so if the worst happens, you’ll have clear guidance on what to do to prevent illness. Be a good partner by being cautious in clinical areas and reporting any exposure promptly.

Radiation

Doses of radiation from medical equipment are relatively low, but repeated exposure increases the risk of harm. The best way to limit exposure is to prevent it.

When radiation producing equipment is present, OSHA requires all staff and clients be informed of how to avoid contaminated areas and how to protect themselves if exposure is unavoidable. Areas where X-rays are taken should be marked with radiation and staff-only warnings.

Staff Notification and Training

All staff members should receive OSHA training before they start work, and at least once annually. As a medical office assistant, you’re responsible for learning and using your judgment to avoid risks on the job.

Injury and Illness Reporting

Employers with more than ten staff members are required to track serious work-related injuries and illnesses. If you hurt yourself at work, reporting it promptly safeguards your rights and helps the practice stay in regulatory compliance.

Hazard Communication

Medical offices store substances that are toxic, flammable, and even explosive. OSHA requires safety data sheets (SDS) for all materials to help staff identify hazards and know what to do if there’s an accident involving those materials. In a fire, a medical office assistant may be designated to take the SDS book out of the building to help firefighters understand what they and anyone left inside may be exposed to.

Good communication is also essential when dangers are recognized. Reporting a frayed wire to the maintenance department is vital, but leaving an area while the wire is exposed and there is no sign puts others at risk. So-called “lockout/tagout” procedures empower all staff to mark equipment as out of service until it’s checked.

On-Site Inspections

OSHA has the authority to inspect any workplace, anytime, with no notification required. The way for medical office assistants to protect their employers is to consistently comply with policies and procedures.

Final Thoughts

Medical office assistants are valued members of the health care team, and they play a crucial role in regulatory compliance. It takes awareness and commitment to keep up with HIPAA and OSHA regulations, but a health care facility is one place where rules were not made to be broken.

Did learning about the importance of a medical office assistant’s role in HIPAA and OSHA interest you? Ready for an exciting new career in the medical field?

The Medical Office Administration program prepares students with the skills and training necessary to provide excellent administrative support while working and playing a key role in running an efficient, productive office in a variety of medical and business environments.

Through a blend of classroom instruction and practical hands-on training, Medical Office Administration program students receive an in-depth education in computer data entry of patient information, patient files, filing systems and records, insurance claim filing, and billing and coding.

Contact us today to find out more about how to become a medical office assistant on Long Island.