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by Abigail Van Buren

Patients' Privacy Disappears in Receptionist's Open Door

DEAR ABBY: My aunt broke her foot and can't drive, so I have been providing her with taxi service for the last three weeks.

I took her to see a new doctor about shortness of breath. His office was in a lovely new building, and I marveled at the paintings and expensive furniture in his waiting room. I thought about how successful he was, and that engendered confidence in his ability to treat my aunt.

However, when she hobbled into the receptionist's office, the door was left open, and everyone in the waiting room could hear the answers to all the personal questions. Nothing was secret from the captive audience. She tried talking softly, but the receptionist repeated her answers loudly enough that we could all hear them.

Abby, medical information is supposed to be confidential. Had one of the patients demanded that kind of information from the receptionist, she probably would have refused to answer. Because it was for medical records, my aunt felt compelled to answer the questions she was asked. It not only embarrassed her, it also put her in a vulnerable position for identity theft.

Shouldn't medical office personnel be more careful to guard the confidential information of the patients? -- NETTLED NIECE IN NEWARK, N.J.

DEAR NETTLED NIECE: Yes. Care should be taken in keeping medical information confidential, and the receptionist was out of line. Your aunt should have smiled sweetly and said, "That information is confidential. I'll answer your questions when you close the door." Then, when she saw the doctor, she should have reported her complaint, which probably would have been a favor for all the patients.

Since your aunt did not report this lapse of confidentiality procedure by the receptionist, you should speak to the doctor and advise him or her of what you witnessed. It is the doctor's responsibility to ensure that

employees observe protocol to protect patients' rights.