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Patient privacy at risk in hospitals' hallways, lobbies, cafeterias

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - New health communication research shows that casual conversations in hospital hallways and waiting rooms poses a threat to the confidentiality of patients' medical information.

Research conducted at Purdue University by Maria Brann, assistant professor of communication studies at West Virginia University, and Marifran Mattson, associate professor of communication at Purdue, shows patient privacy is breached when hospital employees talk about patient cases in public areas, such as the cafeteria, or with people outside of work. The researchers' paper appears in the spring issue of the journal Health Communication.

"The country has recently invested a tremendous amount of resources in the nation's largest set of federal privacy laws to prevent health-care providers and institutions from divulging or selling patient information," says Mattson, who studies health communication issues of privacy and safety. "But we found that the daily conversations of physicians, nurses, hospital staff and technicians can jeopardize the same kind of personal information. So, not only is there a need for privacy laws, but also we see how challenging it is to maintain such laws in the simplest setting of people talking to each other.

"Those of us in roles that involve health education of patients and care providers must seize the opportunities to teach privacy awareness and skills."

Congress passed the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act in 1996 to protect patients' medical information and limit access to that information. The law has been in effect since April 2003. The field research for this study was conducted in 2000 as part of Brann's master's degree thesis at Purdue.

"While volunteering at a hospital as an undergraduate at Purdue, I noticed several instances when health-care providers would discuss patients' information with other health-care workers without being very discreet," Brann says. "Even though
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Contact: Amy Patterson-Neubert
apatterson@purdue.edu
765-494-9723
Purdue University
8-Jun-2004


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