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February 2012, Volume 42 Number 2 , p 10 - 11


  • Susan A. Salladay PhD, RN


I was changing a patient's dressing when the surgeon came in the room. The patient was alert and clinically stable. As the physician talked with her, I heard him describe another patient who had multiple complaints after the same surgery. I instantly recognized the patient he was portraying, even though he didn't mention her name.When we left the patient's room, I asked him about confidentiality issues. He just chuckled and said I was overly sensitive, claiming there was no way one patient would know the other. "No harm, no foul," he said.Isn't it unethical to disparage another patient, even anonymously?-D.M., GA.Yes, and illegal too. Patient privacy is protected under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Violations can carry heavy penalties and healthcare facilities take violations very seriously.Nurses working in a unit day after day know that, without precautions, rumors about other patients can spread faster than MRSA. Gossip is contagious, and all it takes is a careless remark by a caregiver to anoth er patient or family member.Of course, patients have the right to share their personal information with whomever they choose. But nurses should caution members of the healthcare team, including visiting clergy and physicians, that a patient's healthcare information is private and should be shared only with colleagues who have a "need to know"-and certainly not with other patients, even in a casual conversation.You were right to question the physician's behavior for ethical as well as legal reasons. Imagine how the "complaining" patient would feel if she learned her physician was making light of her discomfort with anoth er patient. I have no doubt the physician-patient relationship would be seriously damaged.Talk with your nurse manager about ways to stop gossip from compromising patients' confidentiality. Healthcare professionals in your facility may need more education to prevent such serious breaches of HIPAA regulations in the future.As

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