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Privacy at risk in health workers' conversations

June 14, 2004|Jane E. Allen

Patient privacy laws may have restricted the way that doctors and hospitals can use your personal information, but they don't do much to stop conversations among health workers in hallways, elevators, waiting rooms and cafeterias.

Those discussions make patients vulnerable to identity theft, discrimination or social stigma, says Maria Brann, lead author of a privacy study and now an assistant communication studies professor at West Virginia University. The possibility could also deter patients from sharing important information with their doctors or nurses.

While pursuing her master's thesis at Purdue University in Indiana, Brann recorded what she heard healthcare workers say about patients in public settings. Among the worst examples: a receptionist speaking to insurance companies on a speaker phone and employees giving out patients' phone numbers, addresses and Social Security numbers to insurance companies within earshot of other patients. The most common breach occurred in employees' casual conversations about patients and co-workers while at their workstations or in the cafeteria.

Brann's findings appear in the spring issue of the journal Health Communication.

-- Jane E. Allen

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