Protecting patient privacy

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Pharmacists are in a unique position of trust. That trust requires pharmacists to respect and protect the privacy of those under their care. Patient information must always be managed with sensitivity and should only be shared with those who have a legitimate right to access. This may include other health care professionals or a person authorised by the patient. Consider if the patient’s explicit consent is required before sharing any information. Penalties may apply when these obligations to privacy are not upheld.

Pharmacists must be respectful of their ability to access patient information and only access information related to their direct duties. Irrespective of location or a pharmacist’s role, you should not be accessing medical records of any person if they are not under your immediate care. If copies of charts or prescriptions are made for educational purposes, ensure all identifying information is removed.

Pharmacists are responsible for protecting the information they control. Paperwork must be shredded rather than disposed of in general waste. If holding information on a device or cloud-based system, ensure the information can be protected, e.g. through encryption or other means, so it cannot be accessed by unauthorised personnel.

PDL is aware of Ahpra complaints when pharmacists have handed out medication to the wrong person. The use of open-ended questions to help identify the patient can help prevent handing medication to the wrong person and causing a breach of privacy as a result. PDL strongly recommend that pharmacists ask an additional question, such as ‘Can you please confirm your date of birth or address?’ as an extra measure to confirm a patient’s identity.

Be careful when communicating

Pharmacists need to be particularly mindful of their obligations when it comes to privacy and social media use. Social media platforms are public spaces where information can be easily shared and spread beyond an intended audience. Anything you say when you are identifiable as a pharmacist on these platforms can be held against you. Always consider the accuracy and credibility of information. Sharing confidential or sensitive information about your workplace, colleagues or customers could reflect negatively on your professional reputation. The Pharmacy Board of Australia’s ‘How to meet your obligations under the National Law’ social media guide is a good reference.

Pharmacists also need to be careful when communicating via all means, be it fax, text messages or emails. PDL has seen instances where communication has been sent to the wrong recipients causing a serious breach of privacy. When issuing repeat tokens for electronic prescriptions, confirm that you have the correct number or email address. Double-check the recipient list before sending any communication out to ensure it only includes individuals who should receive the message. Utilise the function of blind carbon copy (BCC) when sending emails to a large group of people to prevent recipients from seeing each other’s email addresses.

The Emergency Access feature in My Health Record (MHR) is limited to emergency situations where a patient’s health record is necessary to prevent harm to the patient or a serious threat to the public. Situations may include where the patient is unconscious, unresponsive or otherwise unable to provide consent, or where immediate medical intervention is necessary to save their life. The decision to use this feature should not be taken lightly. The Australian Digital Health Agency (ADHA) requires organisations to have a policy around the access and security of MHR that complies with the My Health Record Rule 2016. PDL is aware of ADHA monitoring and investigating access to MHR via emergency access.

Keeping these points in mind will help protect your patient’s personal information and their trust in you. Safeguarding a patient’s privacy can protect a patient’s dignity, autonomy and well-being while continuing to uphold the professional integrity of pharmacists.

This Practice Alert was produced with the input of Local Advisory Committee members Justin Cousins (Tas), Curtis Ruhnau (NSW/ACT) and Paula Kwan (SA/NT).

For immediate advice and incident support, call PDL on 1300 854 838 to speak with one of our Professional Officers. We are here to support our pharmacist members 24/7.