Physician Practice

Q&A: Answering patient questions asked in a public area

Physician Practice Insider, February 10, 2015

Q: Can healthcare providers answer questions from other providers or patients when someone may possibly overhear the conversation? For example, I am an administrator at a provider-based clinic and notice that patients often ask the providers last-minute questions as they walk back to the front desk after an appointment. This is an area where most staff members and patients can overhear conversations between the provider and patient, yet our providers often respond to a patient's inquiry in this space rather than taking the patient into an office. Is this a violation of HIPAA?

A: Providers should not assume that the patient is okay with discussing the topic in the open area, even if the question was asked there. This is another example of an incidental disclosure, which HIPAA requires us to minimize. It would be better to bring the patient back into the office to discuss these last-minute questions when possible. Err on the side of caution and encourage your providers to ensure all conversations with patients are as private as possible.

Editor’s note: Chris Simons, MS, RHIA, director of health information and privacy officer at Cheshire Medical Center/Dartmouth-Hitchcock in Keene, New Hampshire, originally answered question in the HCPro newsletter, Medical Records Briefing.

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