Personalize protection of patient health information to improve employee education

A hospice can have encryption on all devices that include patient information as well as a full set of policies and procedures regarding the protection of patient information, but staff education is critical to ensure safety of data, says Brian Payne, chief executive officer at Winston-Salem Hospice and Palliative CareCenter in North Carolina.

"I was at a hospice in Miami, FL, before coming to North Carolina and identity theft was a major concern in that area," explains Payne. Although all health care employees understand that they are supposed to protect patient information, most don't think about the consequences that a loss of patient information can create, he says. "I believe in letting people know exactly what a patient or a patient's family would go through if a data breach resulted in identity theft," he says. At orientation and data security inservices, employees hear the financial and legal details an identity theft victim must handle for years after the patient's information is stolen. "Most employees say that they had no idea what the results of identity theft are and that they would never want to go through that themselves," he says. By personalizing stories and showing what patients and their families would have to handle, employees understand the importance of protecting patient information more clearly than merely reviewing policies, he adds.

Precautions employees are told to protect patient information include:

• Keep mobile devices with you at all times.

"Don't leave a laptop or tablet in a car, even if you are just running into a store to pick up something quickly," says Payne. "Carry it into a store, a restaurant, or coffee shop, even if you're not going to use it."

• Don't leave applications open.

"If you are going to walk away from the laptop or you are not going to use it while helping a patient, close it," says Payne. "Once our applications are closed, a password and login must be used to access the information again." If the device is stolen or lost, the information is still protected.

• Be aware of your surroundings.

When making notes in a patient's record, know who is around you and what they might be able to see on your screen, says Payne. "This is less of a challenge in a home because there is only one patient and the people are generally family members," he admits. "Nursing homes, however, present a different challenge," he says. When a clinician is seeing a patient in a nursing home, especially one with more than one patient in a room, the clinician needs to think about other people in the area, he points out. "We suggest that clinicians sit on the opposite side of the bed from the other patient's side of the room, in a position that allows them to see who comes in the room," he says. "The laptop should always be positioned so that the clinician is the only one who can see it."

• Prepare to educate patients.

Employees also need to educate patients about how the hospice protects their information, says Payne. "Patients are more savvy about protection of their information so when a nurse uses her iPad or iPhone camera to photograph a document that needs to go into the patient's record, she must be able to explain that the photograph is placed in the patient file, which is encrypted," he says. "When patients hear that only the nurse or other clinicians involved in the patient's care can see the record, they are reassured."