Protecting patient privacy at your healthcare facility

In most medical office or hospital reception areas, speech privacy is virtually nonexistent

By Mark Hughes / Special to Healthcare Facilities Today
October 27, 2016

According to a recent report by ProPublica, the number of HIPAA complaints to healthcare providers and pharmacies are on the rise. However, this isn’t a new problem. The data suggests that patient privacy in healthcare facilities has always been an issue, and that complaints have risen mainly due to the government’s introduction of an online complaint portal that makes it easier for patients to file HIPAA complaints. As you know, HIPAA mandates how a healthcare provider is able to collect, store and use patients’ personal health information and requires providers to implement safeguards to protect patient privacy. 

Many healthcare providers take measures to help protect patient privacy and comply with HIPAA, such as encrypting data and having employees take mandatory privacy training. This is great to protect privacy on servers or to ensure that patient data isn’t left unattended, but usually doesn’t do much to protect patient speech privacy. What’s speech privacy? Simply put, it’s the inability of an unintended listener to understand outside conversations. 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. 

In most medical office or hospital reception areas, speech privacy is virtually nonexistent. These spaces rarely have walls or partitions to block sound, so 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. Modern construction walls between exam rooms are often thin and don’t extend to the ceiling deck, so conversations between doctors and patients can often be heard from room to room. Sound can even travel to nearby hallways or corridors where patient speech privacy is compromised. This isn’t just a HIPAA issue; it’s a customer service issue. When patients can hear other patients checking in, ordering their prescription or discussing care options with their doctor, it fosters a negative patient experience where patients feel uncomfortable or embarrassed, and are potentially less likely to have frank conversations with caregivers.  

To help protect speech privacy, many healthcare 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 always 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.

So what can be done to help ensure patient speech privacy? Here are a few changes that can help:

• Rearrange 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 and make it 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 healthcare providers require a 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% certainty, but with a combination of the methods above, healthcare providers can go a long way toward protecting their patients’ information and making them feel more comfortable. 

Mark Hughes is the senior marketing manager at Cambridge Sound Management, makers of the QtPro and Dynasound sound masking solutions. 


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