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Ask patients how they prefer to be addressed

Thomas J. Ferkovic, RPh, MS
Q: Is there a correct way for the staff to address patients? In our office, we typically call patients by their first names in light of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), considering the fact that some last names carry more recognition than others in our small community practice. However, some patients object to this practice and have requested that they be called Mr., Mrs., or in one case, Dr., with the last name. Could announcing a patient's last name in a crowded waiting room be considered a privacy violation?

A: Addressing patients is a matter of courtesy and respect. It is understandable in a practice where patients may recognize their friends, neighbors, and local celebrities in the waiting room for the practice to try to protect the identity of patients. However, HIPAA was passed to protect patients' confidential health and financial information. Because it's not truly a legal interpretation, but more of a practical intepretation, it's not a strict HIPAA violation to announce a patient name in a waiting room as long as you don't share information about the issue, treatment, plan, or patient result. In reality, it's difficult for any practice to completely protect the privacy of a patient who is physically seeking treatment in a medical office.

That said, HIPAA does have a place in the waiting room. You must protect identifying information and not announce the patient and discuss the specifics of why your patient is at the practice. You cannot discuss patients in public areas with colleagues. At new patients' first office visits, begin by asking them when they sign in whether they have a preference on how they would like to be addressed. You can ask celebrities or VIP patients to enter the office through a separate door to maintain their privacy.

Following the HIPAA rules generally only requires common sense and doing the right thing.

Answers to readers' questions were provided by Thomas J. Ferkovic, RPh, MS, managing director, SS&G Healthcare Services LLC, Akron, Ohio. Send your practice management questions to
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