Avoiding Verbal HIPAA Violations

A patient sits in his doctor’s office inner waiting room, reading a magazine. Around the corner, outside of an exam room, two nurses discuss a patient’s non-compliance with her diabetes medication.

A medical assistant walks a patient from the waiting room to the height and weight station, which is located outside of a bathroom. While standing in the hall waiting for the scale to be free, the patient is questioned about symptoms she has been experiencing. Both the person in the bathroom and the person being weighed can hear the conversation.

A doctor walks out to the waiting room with an adolescent who was treated while the parent waited. In front of other patients, the doctor discuss the suggested treatment and addresses the parent’s questions.

A technician reviews a patient’s blood work with the doctor while several patients sit around the corner waiting to have their blood drawn. The patient’s test, results and name are spoken loudly.

In each of these scenarios, a healthcare worker is violating a patient’s HIPAA rights. Protected information is discussed where other people can hear. This happens in healthcare practices all over the country, every day. Doctor’s offices are busy places. Many patients must be seen and treated. Often the staff is moving so quickly that they do not give a second thought to the fact that they are violating HIPAA.

Doctor’s offices are filled with halls, corners, alcoves, and sectioned waiting rooms. While it may feel that a conversation is private, often someone can hear every word being exchanged. Protected information is then disclosed and a violation has occurred. Educating the staff is the most important step in eradicating this all too common problem. Often, hearing is believing. Conduct role playing scenarios in different areas of the office, showing staff and doctors how easily protected information can be overheard. This will reinforce the importance of having conversations behind closed doors. Also, create a system that does not allow for these types of breaches. Conduct all workups, patient questions, and follow-ups in exam rooms, conference rooms, or offices. Remember voices carry, so being inside a room is not always enough. Closing the door and speaking in a reasonable voice is also important.

If one patient hears a conversation about another patient, they may worry that the same will happen to them. No one wants to feel that their doctor’s office and staff are being cavalier with sensitive medical information. Safeguarding your practice and putting a plan into action to prevent verbal violations is key. Best practices will ensure that the office is above reproach. Not only will you be following the guidelines set forth in HIPAA, but you are showing a high level of professionalism. This instills a high level of provider confidence in patients, who are the most important component to a successful practice.