Patient Privacy

How to Maintain Patient Privacy and Confidentiality

At first thought, patient privacy and confidentiality might seem like a no-brainer. Just don’t talk about your patient outside of work, right?

Well, the reality is a bit more complicated than that. A patient’s right to privacy and confidentiality extends to lots of confusing situations.

For example, what do you do if you see a patient on the street? Can you email information about a patient? And what about presenting data at a conference?

These are all important questions that you need to be able to answer before you start working with patients. This is true whether you’re a doctor, nurse, assistant, or researcher. Once you learn how to handle these tricky situations, you’ll know exactly how to respond.

Seeing Your Patient on the Street

If you work in the healthcare field, you might wonder whether it’s okay to say to a patient if you see them on the street. It could be nice to have a short conversation and see how they’re doing. At the same time, this might be awkward for the patient.

The basic rule of thumb here is to completely ignore your patient unless they approach you first. This might seem odd or even cold, but it’s in the interest of patient confidentiality.

Let’s take an extreme example and imagine you’re a fertility counselor working in a local clinic. While you’re walking down the street, you see a patient having dinner with someone.

If you say hi and the person they’re having dinner with knows that you’re a fertility counselor, they’ll suddenly have more knowledge about your patient’s health than they did before. And even if they don’t know who you are, they might ask.

What if the dinner is actually a date? Or a business meeting? There are plenty of reasons why your patient might not want others to know that they’re seeing a fertility counselor.

So err on the safe side and wait for the patient to say hi first.

Keeping Electronic Records

When you’re saving, sending, and sharing any kind of electronic medical information, you need to make sure the technology you use is right for the job.

Even sending things through email often falls short of the confidentiality you’re legally bound to. Find a service that’s HIPAA-compliant, and don’t assume you can save things on an unsecured computer.

First, you’ll need to know what’s covered under HIPAA patient privacy. When you’re using electronic records, this is sometimes called e-PHI, or electronic Protected Health Information. And then you’ll need to find a service that provides the right protections for the level of e-PHI you’re working with.

When to Keep Your Mouth Shut

People working in the healthcare field sometimes have to talk to their co-workers and other specialists about a patient. But to protect patient confidentiality, they need to make sure they’re in a place where other people won’t overhear them.

If you’ve been to a hospital or medical center recently, you might remember seeing a note in the elevator reminding staff not to talk about patients’ files while riding. The elevator is an enclosed, close-quarters space—even if others don’t want to eavesdrop, chances are high that they’ll hear every word spoken.

And this isn’t limited to elevator rides. Details about patients can slip out during walks in the halls or even outside of the workplace. This is a violation of privacy.

So if you work with patients and you need to talk about a certain case, make sure you’re not within earshot of anyone besides the person you need to speak to.

Presenting Data

Let’s say you’re presenting data at a conference. You might have treated a lot of patients for a certain disease and want to share your insights about what worked and what didn’t.

At every step of the way, you’ll have to be extremely careful about what you share about any particular individual. Guidelines vary depending on profession and workplace, but you’ll likely need to strip your data of as many personal identifiers as you can.

For example, before working with your data, you can take the time to assign each patient a unique code. From that point on, you can refer to the patient using their code rather than their full name, which could be used to identify the person.

It might also be good practice to ask the patient whether it’s okay that you’re presenting data on their case. This can help you get through situations where you do need to provide some information about the patient, like what region they live in or how old they are.

Patient Privacy and Confidentiality Training

Many workplaces now include mandatory training on how to keep patient’s information private and confidential. If this describes your place of work, try to approach this training with an open mind. You might learn a lot of things you never realized before.

If the training is given by a particular person, it could be a good idea to write down that person’s contact information in case you ever have confidentiality questions in the future. And if the training is online or through video format, try to find someone (like a supervisor) who might be able to answer those questions for you.

Working With Other People

Over the course of your job, you might find it easier to outsource some of your work to other people. For example, you might have an assistant. Or you might use, a medical answering service.

If this is the case for you, it’s important to make sure everyone you’re working with uses the same level of confidentiality you do. Otherwise, your reliability will boil down to the weakest link.

Protect Your Patients!

People who work in healthcare settings take all kinds of measures to protect their patients from emotional and physical harm. But protection of privacy is extremely important as well. If you keep yourself up to date on the latest about patient privacy and confidentiality, you’ll be able to provide your patients with the best possible service—and stay out of legal trouble!

For more on health and how to handle the tricky situations we might find ourselves in, check out the rest of this site!

About Ambika Taylor

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