Protecting Patients' Privacy
Health care professionals have a moral and ethical responsibility to protect the privacy of their patients and now this has been mandated by federal law (HIPAA). This encompasses all aspects of patient care from pulling curtains and using towels and sheets to protect the patient's modesty and dignity to refraining from discussing details about a patient in any circumstances where you can be overheard.
You have an obligation to protect the patient's information from being seen by anyone who has no need to know. That means not leaving electronic records open when you leave your seat by the computer. It means not leaving patient charts out and unattended for anyone to view.
If you work in a setting outside of the hospital such as in home care, you must always be in possession of any records you remove from your office, or they need to be securely locked in your car away from view. You must not leave them in another patient's home or in a public place. Nor should you allow your family or friends to have access to them.
Whenever you are discussing a patient with a colleague, you need to be discreet and away from the hearing of others. Don't mention names or specifics that could identify a particular patient if you can't avoid being overheard. Don't discuss your patients with your friends and family members. Never assume that even in an employee-only cafeteria that you are “safe” to discuss patients. Others have no need to know and could be friends or neighbors of your patient.
If you keep a journal of your best moments as a nurse, be sure to exclude any identifying information in the event that your journal accidentally falls into someone else's hands. Guard it carefully and enjoy its contents for your own personal benefit.
Remember that your patients have public lives as well as private ones. Their neighbor might seem very concerned, but to the patient, she's a nosy gossip-monger. Your patients most likely live in this community. They are teachers and lawyers and real estate agents. The middle school physical education teacher doesn't need to broadcast that he has had prostate surgery; the prominent lawyer has the right to conceal his HIV status; and the award-winning Realtor doesn't need her clients to know she has frequent bouts of Crohn's disease and is considering an ileostomy. Neither do they need to have their idiosyncrasies of coping shared with the community.