How patients can make sure their doctor's office respects them

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I told the doctor that I could hear everything that was being said to every patient being checked in at the front desk, which violates patients’ right to confidentiality.

I saw a new doctor last week, and thought she was excellent – but I had a major concern about her office. At the end of the visit, I told the doctor that I could hear everything that was being said to every patient being checked in at the front desk, which violates patients’ right to confidentiality.

To her credit, she immediately went to get the practice administrator. I explained that many practices give patients a sheet with all their personal information which they are asked to confirm so none of it is broadcast throughout the office. The administrator thanked me for bringing this to her attention, and I thanked her for listening.

Unfortunately, in many medical offices and in many hospital waiting rooms, confidentiality is one of the most violated patient rights. Instead of taking precautions to guard information, front desk staff openly ask questions of patients and disclose information about what insurance the patient has, what medications the patient is taking, and the diagnoses for which the patient is being treated.

Camera icon Bob Kieserman
Bob Kieserman is executive director of The Power of the Patient Project

As patients, we need to protect our information. When we are asked questions aloud, we need to quietly but affirmatively let the staff member know that we do not want to discuss our information so others can hear. Many patients come prepared with a paper showing all of their personal information – name, address, phone number, referring physician, Social Security number, and other relevant information – and present this to the person at the desk. You should also have your insurance card ready to present. The same holds true at the pharmacy.

Some practices and hospital systems allow a patient to enter their information online at home before the visit, which protects privacy while also expediting check-in. If the front desk staff seem unable or unwilling to respect your right to privacy, ask to speak to the practice administrator.

Here’s another way you can take charge of your health-care experience: Fill out a post-visit survey. Most medical practices today are owned and managed by the large hospital systems that use patient satisfaction surveys to find out whether their protocols are working well. Unfortunately, many patients pay no attention to completing these surveys. But, I am convinced that the surveys are improving the system.

Several months ago, I indicated on the open comment section my dissatisfaction with the call center used to make appointments, explaining why I felt that it broke down communications between the doctor and the patient. Knowing the name of the president of this large hospital system, I wrote that I wanted him to become aware of my comment and seriously consider changing the use of the call centers. I wanted to be able to dial directly to the doctor’s office.

I was pleased to discover a few weeks later when I needed to reach my doctor again that the hospital system had added a prompt to its automated menu that allowed me to do just that.

These surveys are either sent to the patient online or in the mail. Typically, they ask for feedback on everything from the ease of getting an appointment, to how long you had to wait to be seen, to how compassionate and caring the doctor was.

So before you disregard your next patient satisfaction survey, consider that it is perhaps the best tool the hospital systems have to ask patients whether they are meeting expectations. The more patients participate in these surveys, the closer we will get to improving the patient/provider relationship in an increasingly impersonal health-care system.

Bob Kieserman is executive director of the Cherry Hill-based Power of the Patient Project.