Today’s the day when uninsured Americans can start signing up for health insurance.  The timing couldn’t be more appropriate for reminding consumers that they have to be pro-active about protecting their personal health information.

Pro-actively protecting personal health information takes many forms.  It can mean being pro-active and assertive in settings where consumers might presume their personal health information is getting the most protection.  What would be such a setting?  A physician or health care provider’s office.

Don’t assume this to be the case — and I base that on a recent personal experience.  I took a family member for some routine tests to a group that was in new offices.  The offices were sparking new which was nice.  What wasn’t nice?  The fact that the receptionists were all in open cubicles in the waiting room.   They were asking for, and receiving, extensive personal information from patients who came in as well as those whose phone calls they were answering.

Although I had moved to the waiting room’s farthest corner, I overheard patients’ names; the kinds of tests for which they were scheduled or were being scheduled; often their referring physician’s name; and sometimes the name of their insurance carrier.

I was appalled so went and told one of the receptionists that this was unacceptable.  She agreed but said this was all information she was instructed by the office manager to obtain.

I then asked to speak with the office manager.  In short, I told her that it was a complete breach of privacy for people in the waiting room to be able to hear all of this personal and sensitive health information.  I said the receptionists should not be taking this type of information in an open area.  To her credit, the office manager was not defensive and said she appreciated hearing my concerns; she explained the office was recently opened.  I said that was even more reason to have designed the intake area to be privacy compliant.  I said I was thinking about reporting them to the appropriate state medical authority.

About 30 minutes later, the office manager came back and told me she was immediately implementing a new intake procedure.  She was going to have a receptionist sit in a now-vacant office so the intake information would be done in private.

I told the office manager that this was an excellent solution and that I appreciated her acting so quickly in response to my concerns.

I offer this personal anecdote to remind consumers to speak up!  Don’t assume that everyone in a medical office or setting is aware of privacy requirements — or that they’ve instituted the right procedures to protect personal health information.  Doing so can make a difference for many others.