When hospital employees casually talk about patient cases in public areas, they breach patient privacy, finds one West Virginia University researcher.

Maria Brann, an assistant professor of communication studies in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, has collaborated in a research project at Purdue University that has resulted in publication in the journal Health Communication. Brann and Marifran Mattson, associate professor of communication at Purdue University, have demonstrated that conversations in hospital hallways and waiting rooms pose a threat to the confidentiality of patientsmedical information.

I became interested in issues of health care confidentiality when I was an undergraduate at Purdue University and a volunteer at a local hospital,says Brann.I was noticing how freely information was being shared and I was disturbed by it. In terms of the study published by Health Communication, I was really interested in finding out how often confidential health information was being disclosed, who was disclosing information, what types of information was being disclosed and what patients knew about these actions.

Brann interviewed 51 patients about medical privacy. She also recorded observations in places that were accessible by hospital visitors, such as hallways, elevators, waiting rooms and cafeterias. Casual conversations between employees at workstations or in the cafeteria were the most commonly found places where breaches were discovered. Privacy was also violated when the public could overhear phone conversations with insurance companies or other medical consultants.

Patientsphone numbers, addresses and social security numbers were discussed publicly, sometimes even over speaker phones between a receptionist and insurance companies. Brann noted that actions like these could lead to identity theft or discrimination or social stigma if a medical condition is revealed.

I think the most important thing for health care providers to recognize from this study is that their routine activities can often compromise patientscare. Their everyday habits may place patients in positions that could detrimentally affect their health. Depending on who gains access to this information, patients may lose their jobs, their reputation may be jeopardized or they may stop seeking care because of the disclosure, which may affect their physical and mental health,Brann said.

In 1996, Congress passed the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act to protect patientsmedical information and to limit access to that information. The law has been in effect since April 2003. Information on the law can be found online athttp://www.hhs.gov/ocr/hipaa/.