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Thursday Troubleshooter: Former RDH asks, is it a HIPAA violation to contact former patients?

Dec. 17, 2015
This RDH wants to reach out to former patients at holiday time to wish them well, and let them know she's moved to a new pratice.

QUESTION: As a former dental hygienist, is it a HIPAA violation to contact my former patient by email, phone, snail mail, or Facebook to let the person know I enjoyed taking care of her, and to tell her where I am currently working?

ANSWER FROM OLIVIA WANN, owner of Modern Practice Solutions: To actively attempt communications with a patient of a former practice may be perceived as a HIPAA violation. According to the Privacy Rule, the contact information provided to the practice is for purposes of the patient's dental treatment, payment for services, and basic health-care operations. The contact information is therefore not provided for individual employee’s personal use, particularly in the effort to market hygiene services at another dental practice.

Recently a hygienist actively contacted former patients at a previous dental office where she was employed with the intention of recruiting them at her new practice. One of the former patients contacted his dentist and complained about the hygienist. In addition to a HIPAA violation, this constituted invasion of privacy because the contact information was provided exclusively for the dentist's use for purposes of the doctor-patient relationship, not for marketing hygiene services at another office. Therefore, the act of the hygienist contacting her former patients resulted in legal action.

On the other hand, if the patient reaches out to the hygienist, there is no breach of privacy if the hygienist merely responds that she is no longer employed at that practice. Hygienists must be mindful that patients belong to the practice, not to the hygienists. Although a hygienist may build good relationships with her patients during her tenure with the practice, she must protect the information she comes in contact with and promote professionalism at all stages of her employment.

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