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Honoring Our Right to Confidentiality

Imagine sitting in the waiting room of your doctor’s office and you overhear one of the women at the front desk say to a patient checking in, “Your name is Mary Hamilton? You live at 134 Hemlock Drive in Philadelphia, your phone number is 215-555-1234, you are a Medicaid patient, and you are here to see Dr. Brown for a possible blockage in your artery?” Imagine you know Mary Hamilton. As they say, too much information. Actually, it goes beyond just too much information. It can actually be grounds for a malpractice suit against the doctor or the hospital system that owns the practice.


I saw a new doctor last week. Recommended by one of my other doctors, I thought that this new doctor was excellent, and I was very pleased with the examination she gave me. However, at the end of the visit, I asked her if I could have a moment of her time to talk to her about something that was bothering me. She had just completed the exam and the medical scribe was still in the room, so she asked the scribe to leave, and I proceeded to tell her my concern. I told the doctor that I was upset that I could hear everything that was being said to every patient being checked in at the front desk, and that this should not be happening because it breaches the patient’s right to confidentiality. Much to the doctor’s credit, she immediately went to get the practice administrator who sat down with me a few minutes so we could talk. I explained that many practices have a protocol to print out a sheet with all of the patient’s personal information which is given to the patient at the desk and the patient is asked to confirm the information. That way, no personal information is broadcast throughout the office for others to hear. The administrator thanked me for bringing this to her attention, and I thanked her for listening.


In an earlier column for this series, I referred to The Patient Bill of Rights. One of the key elements of that document is protecting the confidentiality of patient information. Unfortunately, in many medical offices and in many hospital waiting rooms, it is one of the most violated rights. Instead of taking precautions to guard information, front desk staff openly ask questions of patients and disclose information about what insurance the patient has, what medications the patient is taking, and the diagnoses for which the patient is being treated.


How Can We Protect Our Privacy?

As patients, we need to be proactive in protecting our information. When we enter a medical practice front desk or hospital check in counter and the staff person begins to ask us questions aloud, we need to quietly but affirmatively let the staff member know that we do not want to discuss our information so others can hear. Many patients come prepared with a paper showing all of their personal information – name, address, phone number, referring physician, social security number, and other relevant information – and present this to the person at the desk. You should also have your insurance card ready to present. By the way, the same holds true at the pharmacy when the pharmacy technician begins to ask for information in front of customers. Again, either a quieter one-on-one conversation should take place, or the information can be written down on a piece of paper and the technician can then take the information to the computer or to the pharmacist.


Some practices and hospital systems allow a patient to enter this information online at home before the visit. This allows the front desk to already have the information in their computer and they can generate a slip for the patient to check when they arrive. This also expedites the check in and initial parts of the visit.


If we make an attempt to teach the front desk staff and they are either unwilling to change or react with an attitude, patients can always ask to speak to the practice administrator. Today, all medical offices and hospital practices have someone who is in charge of the business operations and patient relations. We should not be afraid to speak up, and let the administrator know that we are upset with the way patients are registered or checked out at the end of the visit.


If we do not protect our privacy, we are to blame if someone else overhears information about our medical situation that we do not want shared. That is why we should all be proactive when we begin a visit with the doctor and if necessary, let the front desk know that we want things done differently to protect our privacy.


Some practices and hospital systems allow a patient to enter this information online at home before the visit. This allows the front desk to already have the information in their computer and they can generate a slip for the patient to check when they arrive. This also expedites the check in and initial parts of the visit.

© 2019 by The Power of the Patient Project

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