How a simple hello can create a privacy breach resulting in long lasting implications for your patients and medical practice
Recently a young person walked into a convenience store with her group of peers, looking to buy soft drinks to combat the heat of summer. Turning down the aisle, this teenager and entourage of friends came face-to-face with a doctor that had recently treated her during a stay in the hospital. The young person spent many hours working with the doctor sharing personal information during the course of her treatment.
The normal human reaction when suddenly encountering a familiar face is to acknowledge them. We all do it. The doctor hadn’t seen the girl since she left the hospital and was equally startled to see her and was on the verge of initiating a greeting. He was naturally curious as to how her recovery was progressing. Fortunately after a few awkward seconds where the ex-patient and the doctor stared at each other, the doctor remembered that he was about to commit a breach of privacy and walked away without acknowledgement. The young girl, unsure of how she should react to this unexpected awkward situation in the presence of her friends, was relieved when the doctor walked away without acknowledgement. She recovered her composure quickly and continued on with her friends.
That was a close call for this medical professional. He was a greeting away from committing a serious privacy breach. In reality, the amount of previously undisclosed information that a simple ‘hello’ could have conveyed to the teenager’s peers is significant. Maybe the doctor was a well known oncologist who appears sometimes on the news to provide commentary, or perhaps he was a psychiatrist that another member of her peer group recognized. For the young patient, any information transmitted to the group of peers would have potentially been very difficult. Possibly she never disclosed the hospital stay to her friends and this would lead to a bunch of uncomfortable questions.
In this situation the hospital doctor was a well-trained and experienced medical professional who was able to recover his composure quickly, stifle the instinct to say hello and walk away. However not all medical staff possessing similar privacy information will react the same way. It is unnatural to stifle a greeting especially to a younger person they have helped during a very difficult set of circumstances. Regardless of our common human response to greet someone we know, for the very important cause of the patient’s privacy all staff must be well-trained to recognize a potential breach situation and act accordingly. Their confidential information obligations continue to exist even outside the workplace.
Comprehensive and regular training with course content authored by leading subject matter experts is the best way to protect all parties involved. Our valued medical professionals do not need to find themselves in a disciplinary situation because they were being kind. Quality privacy training with annual refreshers is the right way to protect patient confidentiality and your healthcare team members from unwanted attention and grief.