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Privacy in Telemedicine: 5 Things You Should Know as a Patient
June 21, 2021

Privacy in Telemedicine: 5 Things You Should Know as a Patient

I’m convinced that our phones are listening to us. Have you ever found yourself talking about a topic and then magically your next visit to Instagram had an advertisement for that product or service? Coincidence? I think not.

It’s one thing if Facebook is overhearing my conversation about where I’m headed for my honeymoon (Costa Rica for the record), but it’s another thing if someone is gathering my medical details. So how can we feel comfortable with privacy in telemedicine?

Telemedicine with VirtuCare certainly removes many inconveniences of traditional in-person visits:

  • Travel to a medical office.
  • Dealing with insurance companies.
  • Difficulties scheduling appointments.
  • Long wait times.
  • Rude staff members.

However, you want to feel confident that your privacy will be respected and protected with a virtual visit. Let’s take a look at the top 5 privacy questions you should be considering before you head to your next medical visit virtually or in-person.

What are my privacy rights?

In 1996 Congress passed the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act more commonly known as HIPAA. One purpose behind this legislation, was to ensure that patients personal health information (PHI) was protected and handled securely by healthcare professionals. HIPAA outlines your privacy rights in telemedicine such as who can view your medical records and what steps should be taken to secure your privacy.

What does this mean for you as a patient considering a telemedicine visit? You can:

  • Request a copy of your medical records.
  • Send your records to a third party (e.g. a VirtuCare specialist).
  • Expect to be notified if there is a breach in security.
  • Decide if you want any family members to be involved with your medical care.
  • Confirm that the physician is using a HIPAA compliant telemedicine platform and electronic health record (EHR) system.

These privacy standards are the same for a telemedicine visit as they are for a traditional in-person visit. The penalties for not complying with HIPAA rules are pretty stiff as well (as a urologist I can’t help myself with penis puns). So you can rest assured that your privacy is taken just as seriously for telemedicine visits.

If you’d like more information, click here to review your rights under HIPAA.

How does privacy in telemedicine compare to traditional in-person visits?

You might be saying to yourself “I’m not comfortable with a telemedicine visit because I don’t trust technology.” Before you draw any conclusions, it might be helpful to compare the privacy concerns with telemedicine to a traditional in-person visit with your doctor. In fact, here are the top reasons a telemedicine visit is MORE SECURE than an in-person visit.

No waiting rooms full of patients.

How often at a doctor’s office have you overheard a private conversation in the waiting room or hallway? Have you noticed that medical offices have thin walls? If you think your in-person visit is private, then think again.

Nevermind there are ample opportunities for others to “peek” over at the doctor’s computer screen that’s sitting there open with your chart (this is a HIPAA violation for the record). With a private telemedicine visit from home, all of these potential security breaches are removed. Other than your dog or toddler, you can choose who is hearing about your bladder leakage or ED.

No additional staff members

I can’t count the number of times I’ve witnessed nurses or receptionists violating HIPAA talking about patients in front of others. I don’t think this is intentional, however privacy standards are lacking in most medical offices.

A telemedicine visit involves you and your doctor. That’s it. Our VirtuCare specialists are typically at their own home in a private office. You can choose who else is within an earshot of your virtual visit.

No paper charts

Believe it or not, there are some “experienced” physicians still using paper charts (gasp!). Paper charts provide numerous opportunities for a privacy breach. Test results that inadvertently fall out, charts left open on a desk, or god forbid someone who steals your entire chart. 

Telemedicine visits with VirtuCare are performed on a secure, HIPAA compliant audio/visual platform (CallingDr). Documentation occurs within HIPAA compliant electronic health records. Encrypted cloud-based software makes the likelihood of a security breach very unlikely.

What medical data is being collected from my visit? Is my information being sold to anyone else?

Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn are in the information business. Your information. But what about your personal health information when you have telemedicine visits?

It is illegal for any business or medical practice to sell or distribute ANY of your personal information from a medical visit without your written consent. Now this does not apply to other providers involved in your medical care, insurance companies or pharmacies. But even then, only information that is necessary for their particular service should be provided.

At VirtuCare, none of your information is sent anywhere else unless you request it. Since your visit is outside of insurance (isn’t that a nice change), even they won’t know about your visit with an expert. Your private information is stored within a secure electronic medical record.

How secure is the telemedicine platform? Is it possible that someone else could “watch” my medical visit?

When you think about it, all of our personal information is stored digitally. Social security numbers, emails, bank accounts and credit card numbers to name a few. If it were easy to hack all of these servers, our entire infrastructure would crumble.

Luckily, your biggest risk for a security breach is the next time you lose your wallet or pocket book (that’s what we call a purse in NY). All your data is fully encrypted when you have a telemedicine visit with VirtuCare. This means next to impossible to access except for your specialist.

For better or for worse, whether your visit is virtual or in-person, most medical documentation is being stored somewhere digitally. Data breaches are exceedingly rare. The one difference with a telemedicine visit is the video chat with a physician. Since the video is not stored electronically, your discussion with a VirtuCare physician is more secure than your last Zoom meeting at work.

Where will my telemedicine visit take place?

Hopefully you’re in agreement that a telemedicine visit from home is certainly more secure than a visit to your local doctor’s office with a full waiting room and thin walls. But you may be asking yourself, “where should I have my virtual visit, and more importantly, where’s the doctor going to be located?

We recommend that you are first and foremost in a private setting. Although your local Starbucks with a latte may be of comfort to you, we are not certain that privacy is best maintained in a public setting. At home in a private room is best, although if it’s not a sensitive subject, in your private work office (assuming any of us ever leave the house again post-COVID), is an acceptable substitute.

Sometimes in urology we do need to “take a look at the private area” (usually in men with lumps or bumps), so the ability to go in a locked bathroom is a plus. Don’t worry though, if a physical examination is truly needed and not possible via a video visit, we can refer you to a local in-person colleague for a closer look.

In terms of the doctor, our VirtuCare experts are trained to treat your privacy with the utmost respect. You should expect and can request that your doctor:

  • Visits from a private room with no one else around.
  • Uses a headset with a microphone.
  • Documents only what is necessary in our secure, HIPAA compliant platform.

It’s embarrassing enough to see a urologist. We want you to feel as comfortable as possible with your privacy respected to the highest standards. We take privacy in telemedicine very seriously.

Conclusions

Times are changing faster than ever. COVID-19 has brought remote visits of all types to the forefront of our lives. However, we should feel confident that our privacy is still being respected. 

I truly believe that privacy in telemedicine is easier to protect than in-person visits. We are removing many if not most of the opportunities for an unintentional breach of your personal health information. 

Say goodbye to paperwork being misplaced and in-person conversations about your private area with 10 other people a few feet away. Say hello to locking yourself in the bathroom with your iPhone while we discuss your overactive bladder. It’s just you and the bladder expert no one else. 

Well maybe you need to bring the baby monitor in the bathroom as well since the little one is napping. And your cup of coffee. You know that coffee makes you pee more?  . . . Sounds like you need a urologist.