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The patient privacy epidemic and what can be done about it

By Mark Hughes

In most medical office or hospital reception areas, speech privacy is virtually nonexistent. Because these spaces rarely have walls or partitions to block sound, patients often overhear conversations between office personnel and other patients.

Lack of speech privacy is by no means confined to reception areas and pharmacy lines – the problem is also present in exam rooms. In modern construction, walls between exam rooms are often thin and don’t extend to the ceiling deck. As a result, conversations between doctors and patients can often be heard from room to room or in nearby hallways or corridors and patient speech privacy is compromised.

What’s speech privacy? Simply put, it’s the inability of an unintended listener to understand outside conversations. So someone with a lack of speech privacy is overhearing lots of conversations they shouldn’t be and is also concerned that their conversations are being overheard by others.

When patients can hear other patients checking in, ordering their prescription, or discussing care options with their doctor, this is not only a HIPAA violation but also fosters a negative patient experience where patients feel uncomfortable, embarrassed, and are potentially less likely to have frank conversations with caregivers.  

Although patient privacy complaints to health care providers and pharmacies are on the rise, the data suggests that patient privacy has always been a problem and that complaints have risen mainly due to the government’s introduction of an online complaint portal that now makes it easier for patients to file HIPAA complaints. As you likely know, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), mandates how a health care provider is able to collect, store, and use patients’ personal health information and requires providers to implement safeguards to protect patient privacy.

Many health care providers take measures to help protect patient privacy, such as encrypting data and having employees take mandatory privacy training. Regarding speech privacy specifically, many health care providers place signs in waiting areas that encourage patients not to stand too close to other patients checking in. This is well-intentioned but doesn’t work – in open areas that are naturally quiet (like waiting rooms) the sound of someone’s voice can travel 50-100 feet – as a result, the sign suggesting that patients line up 10 feet behind the check-in counter isn’t doing anything.

Rising HIPAA complaints suggest the methods health care providers are taking aren’t doing enough. So what other methods can health care providers take to ensure speech privacy? Here are a few prescriptions that can help:

  • Arrange the floor plan with privacy in mind. There are many ways a medical office can be arranged to help protect speech privacy. Since it’s harder to overhear someone whose back is to you, consider angling the reception desk or counter away from the line-up area and seating areas. It may also be helpful to add a partition or wall panel between the seating area and the check-in counter. Some medical offices even place the reception area in a different room than the seating area.
  • Add sound deadening materials. Acoustical ceiling tiles, carpets, and wall panels can be placed around spaces to help absorb and block sounds. Wall panels can be particularly helpful to help sound transmission between exam rooms. There are even acoustical wall treatments that look like decorative pieces of art or office plants!   
  • Consider technological solutions. Not all sound mitigation techniques require expensive acoustical building materials or construction. Adding a sound masking system can also help. Small speakers installed in the ceiling add an unobtrusive airflow-like sound to the environment. This sound brings the ambient noise level of a space up and is engineered specifically to mask speech noise so that it’s more difficult for unintended listeners to overhear conversations. Some of these systems even offer visual notification that the system is operating to provide patients with needed peace of mind.  
  • Provide frequent reminders. As mentioned above, almost all health care providers require mandatory privacy training for their employees, but employees can often slip into bad habits if they aren’t frequently reminded to take patient privacy seriously. Consider placing signage around the space reminding staff to speak quietly to patients and to other caregivers. You might want to send a monthly email featuring privacy tips to staff to keep this topic top of mind throughout the year.

No one solution can provide speech privacy with 100 percent certainty, but with a combination of the methods above, health care providers can go a long way towards protecting their patients’ information and making them feel more comfortable.

Mark Hughes is senior marketing manager at Cambridge Sound Management, makers of the QtPro sound masking solution. He has worked in the audio technology space for over a decade.

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