Health Information Management

Q&A: Physicians and patient privacy

HIM-HIPAA Insider, October 4, 2011

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Q: One of the physicians in our practice frequently speaks about patients in the hallway and even at the front desk, although she doesn't use patients' names. Should I be concerned?

A: This could fall into the category of what HIPAA terms an "incidental disclosure." An incidental disclosure is one that cannot reasonably be prevented and occurs in the course of providing care to the patient or otherwise doing one's job. For example, in an emergency, it might be appropriate for your physician to issue instructions related to patient care, even if others might overhear.
 
However, in this case, it sounds like the physician is simply being careless. She may be communicating necessary information for the care of the patient, but she could find ways to do so without risking the privacy of the information.
 
The best course of action is a gentle reminder. No privacy officer can be the eyes and ears of the entire organization; your entire staff and organization must participate in a culture of privacy and security. Staff members must remind each other of this when they carelessly share information or forget to log off from their computers, for instance.
 
Editor’s note: Chris Simons, RHIA, director of care coordination and HIM, and privacy officer at Spring Harbor Hospital in Westbrook, ME, answered this question in the September issue of Medical Records Briefing.



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