Protecting patient privacy when a clinical observer visits

April 9, 2024
An optometry student is shadowing you at your practice. Does your patient need to give their consent?
HIPAA requirements document on table

An optometry student is observing how a doctor of optometry runs their practice, accompanying them from one exam room to the next as they attend to patients.

Does the patient need to sign a HIPAA consent form or provide verbal consent? HIPAA is short for Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, the federal law that protects the privacy of patients’ health information from disclosure. Chances are they already signed the form.

“Yes, a patient should sign a consent form giving their consent to a clinical observer or at least give verbal consent, which practices should note in their record,” says Michael Stokes, Esq., AOA general counsel.

What should doctors, responsible for HIPAA compliance in practices, and their staff know about allowing non-practice employees on the premises? Stokes answers common questions below.

AOA HIPAA Resources

Read all about HIPAA here.

Download a PDF of a HIPAA Q&A by Michael Stokes, including content for a patient consent form.

Who might qualify as a clinical observer in my practice?

On occasion, practices may have observers or visitors on-site. They could be students, equipment or sales reps or others. It's important for practices to obtain express consent from patients before allowing a non-provider into the exam room. Patients should never feel compelled to allow an observer to be present.

What is HIPAA?

Passed in 1996, HIPAA is the federal law that protects patients’ rights against unauthorized disclosure of their protected health information (PHI). Disclosure of PHI could result in civil and/or criminal penalties.

What should a practice do to comply with the privacy rules regarding observers or visitors in exam rooms?

Make sure visitors/observers understand HIPAA privacy rules. Best practice is to share a copy of the rules with observers prior to them being in the presence of patients being treated. It’s also important to train staff on HIPAA because they spend significant time with patients.

What if a patient has a concern about a visitor?

You want to handle patients’ concerns in a way that’s very transparent, so that the patient doesn’t feel pressured. Let them know they have the option of saying no. Always note their responses in the patient record. Complying with the rule will go a long way in maintaining trust in the doctor-patient relationship.

More AOA resources

Be aware of new classification of employee vs. independent contractor from labor department

Hatch Act permits issue advocacy by doctors of optometry

Using automated services to reach patients? Know the rules

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