Respecting Patient Privacy: A Huge Responsibility

Article Categories: Legal and Ethics & Other

When patients seek medical help, they entrust their well-being as well as their reputation to the healthcare team. This is why patient information must be handled with strict confidentiality. A breach of patient confidentiality is always a big deal and sparks a lot of trouble for the erring employee and their employer.

On May 8th of this year, a mother filed a lawsuit against a hospital over an incident where two employees, both nursing assistants, had allegedly accessed her child’s medical records "without work-related reasons." Upon further investigation, they found that one of the CNAs had been viewing more than 4,800 patient records from the hospital's database within a span of two years.

Because many patients were affected, the court case may turn into a class lawsuit. It isn’t clear what sanctions the employees received, but the hospital had done its due process in instituting their policies, and the employees do not work there anymore.

If you are wondering what made the involved nursing assistants do a breach of patient confidentiality, it is far from what you think. No, they did not ‘sell’ the data for some easy money. In fact, think the opposite. They did it because they were curious and bored. What a disheartening situation!

You can protect the patient’s privacy (and your license!) by following the reminders below:

1. Take note of the information below that you cannot share unless through proper channels:

a. Personal information
b. Photos
c. Health status, including their diagnoses and complications
d. Laboratory procedures and results
e. Medications
f. Billing and payment information
g. Your notes regarding their care
h. Stories about their life that they shared with you

2. Review your agency policies.

Your place of work has a set of rules on how to access, share, document, and discard patient information. These policies are usually written in employee handbooks that you get on your first day on the job. During orientation, the nurse usually discusses the rules on patient privacy, and you will need to keep these in mind while caring for patients.

3. Comply with HIPAA rules and regulations.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) is a federal law that protects patient confidentiality. It defines patient privacy and describes proper handling of patient information as well as what is considered inappropriate access to medical records. Always review HIPAA rules and take note of any updates on policies.

4. Remember that an adult patient has the sole authority over their health information.

Only the patient can determine what items of his health information can be shared and who can share those records. A breach of this kind can easily be committed by providing information to another staff member, such as a physician who is a 'friend' of the patient. You might feel pressured to give in because he is an authority figure, but if that doctor is not directly involved in the patient’s care, he cannot have the records unless the patient himself gives the permission.

5. Report any suspicious activities that seem to violate patient confidentiality.

An example is witnessing employees discarding hard copies of old patient health records in the trash. Report such cases to the management immediately.

6. Do not talk about any patient with a co-worker within the hearing distance of people who are not directly involved in their care.

As a general rule, you should not discuss anything about a patient outside of work. These circumstances include lunch and coffee breaks when employees are usually eager to share 'interesting' stuff about their patients.

7. Never take a picture of the patient without their consent, or worse, share them with unauthorized people.

Just two clicks on your phone is what it could take for you to risk losing your license. Taking a photo and sharing them through social media is a big no-no. It is irresponsible and a deliberate offense.

8. Be wary of seemingly harmless ways of giving away patient information.

An example is congratulating a husband on his wife's pregnancy without consent from the wife. You cannot readily assume that the wife is enthusiastic about sharing this information. Another example is casually telling a curious bystander why a patient was admitted.

Patient confidentiality is a shared responsibility among healthcare workers, and is vital in ensuring the patient's privacy. Breaches of health information can have serious consequences for the patient, the employee involved, and their employer. Protecting a patient’s privacy is, therefore, a must for every CNA.


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