At dinner in a restaurant recently with my husband, who is a psychologist, and one of his colleagues, I listened to them “talk shop” about therapists and confidentiality. As I listened to them chat about their challenges, I thought of dentistry, and the need for us to maintain confidentiality on many levels.
Patient confidentiality is, of course, critical for each and every person working in a dental practice. There is HIPAA to guide us, but sometimes lines may not be completely clear and understood − especially when our fundamentally good intentions to communicate with colleagues may inadvertently cross over one of those lines.
In our day-to-day routines, we may become complacent in our efforts to respect our patients and their privacy, using assumptions or other forms of ineffective communication to get the work done. I have seen this unravel patient relationships more than once in practices. For example, leaving more information than was needed on a voice message that could then be overheard by someone else, has led to some of my clients losing patients out of a feeling of lost trust.
It seems so innocent, but one simple slip-up can be all it takes to rock the fragile relationship of trust you have with your patients. Don’t let a slip in protocol cost you the time it will take to rectify a situation with an upset patient over a privacy concern. Or even worse, risk losing that patient altogether. Here are two keys to success for your privacy protocols.
1. Keep your protocol clear and concise
Revisit the protocol in team meetings. Make sure everyone knows what is acceptable, when and where. This is important for HIPAA compliance and should not be taken lightly. Your patients are savvy and know more than you think when it comes to their privacy rights.
2. Keep your messages generic
Unless you are speaking directly to the patient, keep your communication on voicemails, emails and other versions of secondary communication as basic and generic as possible, until you are able to speak to the patient and go further into the details. Do not assume that everyone with access to those devices is “in the loop” on your patient’s healthcare. If in doubt – leave it out!
Even seemingly simple tasks in a dental office − confirming appointments, calling to schedule incomplete treatment, or calling to schedule after a lab case is returned – must still be handled with sensitivity to maintain confidentiality for that patient. Reinforce this with your team regularly. If you are not sure about the specific HIPAA parameters, especially with the recent changes to this law, get informed.
There are webinars frequently offered on the HIPAA updates that you and your entire team can watch. Or consult with a HIPAA expert. Short of all this, just use common sense and keep any communication concerning a patient’s treatment private – even from a spouse.