Rural hospitals are ceasing operations at an alarming rate. This is a result of many factors, including dwindling patient populations, lack of funding, and the high cost of medical care. As these hospitals close their doors, the question arises: What happens to all of the medical records and other health information? Further, what is the best option for dealing with this data? This is where legacy data solutions come in.
Before exploring some of the options closing hospitals have for their data, let’s talk more about why rural hospital closing rates are increasing.
There are many reasons behind the recent trend of rural hospital closures.
For starters, these hospitals tend to have smaller patient populations, which means they have less revenue coming in. Regardless, their services are vital to those living in the area, leaving behind a gap in medical care when they close.
In addition, many rural hospitals are located in areas with a high proportion of Medicare and Medicaid patients. However, due to changes in reimbursement rates, these hospitals are seeing a decrease in funding, or because they are in states that did not expand Medicaid.
The high cost of medical care is also contributing to rural hospital closures. With advancements in technology and treatments, the costs of providing care continue to rise. But unfortunately, reimbursements tend to remain the same or decrease.
Further, many rural areas are struggling with high levels of poverty and poor access to medical care. Often, this leads to higher rates of chronic illness. What’s more, the cost of medical care is rising faster than inflation, putting even more financial strain on rural hospitals.
Coupled with the added challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic over the last few years, it’s not surprising many rural hospitals have been forced to close.
All of these factors together make it difficult for rural hospitals to stay afloat financially, leading to an increased number of closures. And when a hospital does close, the question becomes what to do with all of the medical records and other health information?
What happens to health and business records when a hospital closes depends on how the organization handles this process as well as what they are legally required to do. Depending on where the facility is located and the age of the data, there are different requirements for retaining data.
There are a few different strategies for dealing with this legacy data when a hospital closes.
One is to simply destroy the records. However, this is not always a viable option, especially if the hospital is subject to state or federal regulations regarding the destruction or retention of medical records. In addition, destroying records can be expensive and time-consuming along with other challenges.
In most cases, record destruction not only has legal implications but also raises ethical concerns. After all, these medical records contain sensitive information about patients’ health conditions and treatments. As such, it’s important to ensure this data is handled properly to protect patient privacy.
Another option is to archive the records. This involves transferring the records to a third-party storage facility. There, they can be securely stored—a process we’ll discuss in greater detail later in this post.
A third option is to migrate the records to another electronic medical record (EMR) system. This is usually done when a hospital is bought by another organization that already has an EMR system in place. Data migration can ensure healthcare data remains accessible and secure.
Regardless of which path an organization chooses, protecting PHI must be of its utmost concern.
When a hospital closes, there are many implications for the protected health information (PHI) of the patients it serves. Typically, the hospital must take steps to ensure the PHI is transferred to another covered entity. Alternatively, it must be destroyed in a way that protects patient privacy.
When deciding what to do with the medical records, the hospital needs to take into account all state and federal laws regarding the confidentiality of PHI.
For example, in California:
“Within 48 hours of ceasing to operate, the facility must notify the Department of Health of its plan for the safe preservation of medical records. Should the facility change ownership, written documentation must be provided by both the old and new licensee outlining the arrangements made for transfer of medical record custody, safe preservation of the records, and access to the information by both the new and old licensees and other authorized individuals.”
In addition, ethical considerations must be considered when deciding whether or not to destroy medical records and other business data, including HR and financial information.
Destroying medical records is often seen as the easiest way to protect patient privacy. However, as we mentioned, simply destroying records is not always a viable option. Not to mention, easiest does not mean best. State and federal laws require medical records be kept for a certain period of time. By destroying these records ahead of their time, healthcare organizations open themselves up to a whole host of legal issues.
To protect PHI and the legal interests of the healthcare organization itself, archiving medical records tends to be the preferred option of all of the aforementioned legacy data solutions for hospitals that are closing their doors.
Healthcare data archiving involves transferring medical records to a third-party storage facility. These facilities are designed to store medical records securely for extended periods of time—often indefinitely. During the archival process, medical records are organized, digitized, and indexed so they can be easily retrieved when needed.
A notable benefit of archiving medical records is that it helps healthcare organizations avoid compliance issues. As noted, there are state and federal laws, including HIPAA, that dictate how long medical records must be kept. By working with a third-party storage facility, healthcare organizations can ensure their medical records are stored in accordance with these laws.
Medical record archiving also protects against data loss. Although EMR systems have made great strides in recent years, data loss still occurs from time to time. When medical records are stored off-site in a secure archive, this guards them against potential data breaches, system failures, and other risks.
Compared to maintaining legacy systems (which often isn’t an option for closing hospitals), health data archiving is a cost-effective way to store medical records. By using an off-site storage facility, healthcare organizations can free up valuable space in their own facilities. This can be especially helpful for hospitals that are facing closure and need to clear out and close down their buildings quickly.
Lastly, archiving medical records can help healthcare organizations meet their legal obligations regarding the confidentiality of PHI. With medical records in a secure off-site location, hospitals ensure patient privacy protection even after the hospital closes.
No matter which option you choose for your legacy data, it’s important to work with reputable data conversion experts.
If you’re looking for a reliable legacy data solution for your hospital, contact Two Point today. We can help you find the best way to protect your patients’ medical records while ensuring compliance.