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4 things your doctor doesn't need to know

You sign a form that indicates you understand your privacy rights -- but then office procedures may put your medical history at risk.

By Mar 4, 2014 2:33PM
This post comes from Adam Levin at partner site on MSN MoneyWatch an episode of "SVU," "Law & Order" or "CSI" on TV, and you’re bound to hear about doctor-patient confidentiality in hushed, almost reverent terms. Go to a new doctor’s office and, amid all the other paperwork, you’ll be asked to sign a form enumerating your federally-mandated medical privacy rights. Call a hospital to check in on a friend and you’re likely to hear that those rights prevent them from connecting your call.

Medical doctor © Digital Vision, Getty ImagesSo then why is medical identity theft one of the most common forms of identity theft and growing?

It’s partially because, like many small businesses, doctor’s offices often don’t understand best practices when it comes to protecting the information they keep on their patients, and their record-keeping is often based on antiquated forms and methods of documentation that are long past their prime.

For instance, I recently made an appointment with a new, highly recommended physician whose staff immediately emailed me a new patient information form to fill out… and they suggested that I return it to a Hotmail account! I was dumbfounded that they would even recommend email -- which is transmitted in plain text (with a few exceptions) and easily intercepted -- to pass along my entire medical history.

Worse yet, most people don’t know how dangerous it is to email this kind of personal information, or that you don’t just have to hand over all the information that a doctor requests. So what are some of the things they ask for that they don’t need to know?

1. Your Social Security number

It used to be that your Social Security number was also your health insurance ID number (and, for those readers who use Medicare, it still is for the foreseeable future). But the vast majority of health care providers have changed that. So why do doctors still ask you for your SSN? Because the forms still list it, they’re used to asking for it, because “it’s what they’ve always done.” But that’s no reason for you to simply give it up. Leave it blank.

2. Family members’ Social Security numbers

If they don’t need your Social, doctors definitely don’t need the SSNs of your minor children or your spouse. The more ways there are to find this information, the easier it is for that information to be lost or stolen, and child identity theft is itself a large and growing problem because their profiles are usually pristine and unlikely to be legally accessed until the age of 17.

A child’s identity can be stolen and used for years before it is ever noticed.  Remember how difficult it was for you to establish good credit when you were just starting out as a recent high school graduate? Now imagine that with years of bad credit to erase, all of which happened while your child was studying algebra.

3. Your email address

Yes, it’s quite convenient to communicate via email but, as we’ve all learned from countless health care breach stories in the past year, it’s also a very convenient way for others to eavesdrop on our correspondence or steal our identities.

If you want to keep your medical information private (and you do), then don’t even give the doctor the option to communicate in this way with you. They may set up a secure portal where you can log in to see your test results, but they should never email your test results or other personal health information to you.

4. Any financial information not used to pay your immediate bill

There’s absolutely no need for a doctor’s office to keep your credit card on file. If someone in the front office asks if you'd like for them to file this information, politely decline. They may also ask to write your driver’s license number on your check in order to help them collect if your check bounces; ask them if they can use another means of verification (one that isn't your SSN or other sensitive info).

Doctors are bound by the Hippocratic Oath to first do no harm and while they may be very good, or even the best, at what they do, the continuing parade of breach announcements in the health care area is a clear indication that many haven’t a clue when it comes to information security. All the laws in the world, even the most vigorous enforcement of those laws, cannot supplant our individual responsibility for self-protection. Our identities are our assets and it is incumbent upon each of us to trust less and be covetous of our personal identifying information. Just because someone is trained to save a life doesn’t mean they can’t innocently put it in harm’s way.

This story is an Op/Ed contribution to and does not necessarily represent the views of the company or its affiliates.

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Mar 4, 2014 4:48PM
Why do I have to give out my SS number when I go to the e-room but the illegal mexicans don't even need any type of ID to get treated free.   I saw this happen 3 years ago when I was in the waiting room.
Mar 4, 2014 3:44PM
I would like to add one. it was asked on a form I was given by the Doctor's office.

Do you own a gun in your household?

Mar 4, 2014 4:32PM
They have no right to know if I own a gun or not.  I was born and raised in America and I will die living in the America I was born in. With my freedom and personal liberty in tact.
Mar 4, 2014 4:35PM
When my children were young  got into a MAJOR argument with a healthcare provider about their using my children's social security numbers for the account numbers and even putting it on mail sent to our house.  I told them flat out that they had not right to put this information where someone else could get it, and even at that time if you told your insurance carrier not to use your social security number as your insurance card number they would comply.  People don't seem to realize that even snail mail is not fool proof is there any of use that have not gotten at least one piece of mail that looked like it had been opened or was not sealed properly?  It is sad but we need to be so vigilant but it is now a fact of life.
Mar 4, 2014 6:05PM
Most of  what medical offices collect on us legal citizens enables them to collect on the debt you ring up.  When illegals use the same clinics, they lack any of that information and simply walk out and never have to pay a dime toward the bill.  They have rung up a bill to the tune of three trillion dollars in medical care that is primarily owed by Mexico.  That's because Mexico sent their "patients" to the USA ever since president Fox said, "Why should we spend trillions on health care when the US is willing to provide it to Mexico's citizens for free."
Mar 4, 2014 6:42PM
No Social Security number or Credit card needed by 12,000,000 illegals!
Mar 4, 2014 7:20PM
I have one minor question to ask. If you don't want to give out this information, how many of you use the "cloud" to store information or backup your computers. You have absolutely no idea where that information is or who has access to it, no matter what any company tells you.
Mar 4, 2014 4:12PM

Don't worry, in a few years people won't even know who their doctor is.


REPEAL In December-


Bloodbath in November, throw lying Dems out~!

Mar 4, 2014 6:22PM
This is a total lie!! Somone needs to do some research before blogging. Blue cross blue shiel will not process a claim without the patients ss number and we cant verifiy benefits without it!!! THE DOCTOR IS NOT THE your eyes people!!! The govenment is passing so many hoops for the doctors and hospitals to jump through there will be NO healthcare left if we keep going!!!! They have to ask about the gun question because its a hoop that has to have an answer to get payment from your insurance company.....if patients and doctors are against each other the government wins!!!! Stop believing everthing online!!
Mar 4, 2014 8:10PM
  MIKE...Like I said earlier...I couldn't get treated until I filled out a load of forms and showed proof of insurance.  Took over two hours with a leg that was swollen from the hip to my ankle.  They wouldn't even give me a pain killer till I completed everything...illegals got treated without a hitch... they use the E-room as a doctors office.  Still Pisses me off to this very day.
Mar 4, 2014 3:24PM
The doctor's office where I go has it set up with my permission to send me my test results which is very convenient for me to gain access to. I had to create a username and password just for that purpose only. As far as I am aware of this hasn't created a problem for me. I have to give the doctor's office my SS# and the hospital also. Even my health insurance carrier has it on file. So how does one protect themselves if this is required before treatment of any kind is granted? I always felt that this number was being used outside of it's intended purpose. It has expanding beyond that and has created problems such as identity thief against the American people. Next there will be a new number issued and it may well be a micro chip implanted somewhere on our bodies with or without her permission and that might be the mark of the beast. Our government is heading in that direction under Obama or no telling who else. We are no longer human beings. We are just another number in line to be exploited. 
Mar 4, 2014 7:37PM
they also have zero need to know if you own firearms.
Mar 4, 2014 5:23PM
so many complaints in the comments.  imagine listening to them all day long and every day
Mar 4, 2014 4:19PM
One incredibly ill informed article.
1. "Doctors are bound by the Hippocratic Oath to first do no harm..."  No they are not bound by the Hippocratic oath.  It is a ritual...there is no legal ground to the oath.

2. More physicians are keeping credit card numbers on file in order to be paid in a timely manner.

3. Electronic medical records mandates SSN

Mar 4, 2014 6:50PM
the writer of this article obviously doesn't have a clue when it comes to the bad debt write-offs that healthcare providers have to take because patients refuse to pay for the services provided them.   Most healthcare services are provided on a "bill me later if needed" basis - a patient may give the provider his/her insurance information and then after billing this insurance the provider determines the patient has a deductible or coinsurance and they must collect from the patient.  Now try collecting that balance from a patient - when he/she doesn't respond to the bill the provider sends him/her every month how does the provider attempt to collect the debt?   I can hear all the liberal socialist yelling as they read this -  the providers are all rich conservatives that don't need the money - they should just accept what the insurance pays and leave the poor patient alone.  Wrong - a provider needs to look at the financial aspect of the services they provide as any other business does that extends credit to a customer.  If a patient wants the provider to extend them credit they better be prepared to provide the necessary information to receive such credit - otherwise the patient should take the risk and pay for the services upfront and allow the provider to refund them if/when the provider is paid by the insurance.
Mar 4, 2014 3:55PM
A common problem in medical practices and hospitals is patients with the same names. This can have outright dangerous consequences. SSN is the closest thing that we have to a universally available unique identifier for patients. Names are commonly misspelled and medical records indexed only on them can become lost. Birth dates are helpful but they are not unique. It is critically important that patients be correctly identified to avoid the most common and dangerous medical error - patient mis-identification.
Mar 4, 2014 6:00PM
I guess it is okay to piss and moan about doctors and what they charge as it does seem excessive.  But, be sure to not forget all the things you said about doctors the next time you or your child needs one to save your life.  Or, be sure to keep track of every little thing your doctor did while working on you so that you can tell your lawyer when you are working on your lawsuit.
Mar 4, 2014 7:27PM
This article seems to be outdated or misinformed.  Part of Meaningful Use EHR for CMS medicare is to be able to communicate with the patient through a secure email portal.  So yes, doctor's do need your email.  And if you are on Medicaid or Medicare they will most likely need you SS#---that is, if you want your visit paid for.
With the new  regulations and coding going into affect the doctor asking if you own a sub machine gun will seem minor. If he does ask tell him you bought it through the fast and furious program. But really, the doctor will not have time to talk to you personally, he be to busy trying to figure out where your illness/injury fits into the new coding system. Don't worry, be happy!
Mar 4, 2014 6:51PM
The ACA is requiring all providers to collect e-mails from patients by the end of this year! "Big Brother" is watching! Good luck to all you people who think you are going to get "FREE" healthcare!
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