Healthcare News & Insights

How hospitals should handle confidential health conversations in public areas

Despite all the press given to data breaches involving technology, there are many other ways patients’ privacy can be compromised in hospitals, including overheard conversations. And they’re treated just as seriously as any tech-related violation – just ask one Pennsylvania hospital. 

UPMC Pinnacle West Shore Hospital, located in Cumberland County, PA, was cited by the Pennsylvania Department of Health for discussing patients’ confidential health info in a public area of the emergency department, according to an article from PennLive.

Per the article, while an inspector from the health department was visiting the hospital, admission staff asked a patient a series of health-related questions in the waiting room. The questions required the patient to state their name, date of birth, chief complaint, prior hospital admissions, medications taken and medical history, and the answers could be heard clearly from the seating area opposite the room.

A hospital employee told the inspector that it was common for staff to ask these intake questions in the waiting area. However, for privacy reasons, the staff could only ask patients the most basic questions: name, birth date and reason for coming to the emergency department.

Otherwise, it was a violation of state law, which specifically says that patients have the right to privacy with several aspects of their medical treatment and condition – including conversations about their health.

To correct the issue, the hospital agreed to change its admissions process. Now, a nurse will ask patients only the most basic questions upon arrival. More detailed information about the person’s medical history will be discussed in a separate triage area – out of earshot of others waiting outside.

The facility has trained its staff and will conduct regular audits to make sure these new procedures are being followed.

Best practices for health-related conversations

While HIPAA guidelines do allow providers to have conversations with providers and patients about confidential medical info in places where they may be overheard, the feds (and state regulators) expect covered entities to take “reasonable safeguards” to make sure that info remains protected (e.g., speaking about health matters in a quiet voice or moving the conversation to a more private area).

Facilities must also follow a “minimum necessary” standard that limits disclosure of patient health info to only those parties who have a valid reason to access it (e.g., for treatment or billing purposes).

Although there’s a bit more leeway if a patient is in a life-or-death situation, for standard patient registration purposes, your best bet is to make sure staff avoid in-depth discussions of a patient’s medical condition in public. Create a separate, private area for these conversations, and train staff to use it.

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