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Resident Forum
May 6, 1998

Residents Must Protect Their Private Information

Author Affiliations

Prepared by Ashish Bajaj, Department of Resident Physician Services, American Medical Association.

JAMA. 1998;279(17):1410B. doi:10.1001/jama.279.17.1410

During training, residents are taught about some types of fraud that physicians encounter; unfortunately, many are not taught to protect themselves from certain types of fraud such as the theft of personal information and violation of privacy. While everyone needs to secure themselves against this, residents should be particularly careful for 3 important reasons: the invasion of their privacy may compromise patients' privacy, busy schedules may prevent them from meticulously protecting sensitive personal information, and criminals may perceive all physicians to be wealthy and consequently target them. There are a number of steps residents can take to protect themselves against these types of fraud. Although no methods are foolproof, taking these steps can limit the risk to residents and their patients.

Telephones. Whenever you use a telephone to discuss or transmit information about yourself or patients, be sure to use the most secure telephone available. Many cordless and cellular phones are not secure from eavesdropping. Avoid cordless and cellular phones whenever discussing patients or when you are conveying personal information such as credit card numbers, Social Security numbers (SSNs), or other identification. If you must use a cordless or cellular phone, use one with digital transmission and built-in encryption technology.

Internet. Similarly, when sending or viewing sensitive information or making transactions over the Internet, make sure your information is encrypted. Many Internet browsers now include encryption security automatically, but it is important to make sure that your browser has this technology. As the electronic transmission of medical records and images increases, everyone must become increasingly careful about protecting patient confidentiality. When using the Internet for personal financial transactions such as purchases, it is generally safer to call on a secure phone to place an order or make a transaction.

Social Security Numbers. Do not give out your SSN to anyone unless it is absolutely necessary. Criminals can use it to create false identification with which they can obtain credit cards, open new bank accounts, and access your current bank account. If your hospital requires you to include your SSN with your signature on medical documentation, ask the hospital to consider devising another identification system. If your SSN is used on personal identification or by your financial institution as an account number, ask for an alternative number. If the issuing body does not offer this option, insist that it consider a new system. In particular, avoid giving your SSN out over the phone or writing it on a check. Many people handle checks before they are canceled and filed away.

It is also imperative to buy a personal shredder for your home and office. They are usually available at local office supply stores. Never discard intact documents with patient or personal information in the garbage because thieves regularly search the trash for such information.

If you feel that any of your private financial information has been stolen, review your credit report immediately. You are entitled to receive at least 1 free copy of your credit report each year. Look for erroneous information, possible illegal activity, or unauthorized credit checks. As a general rule, the earlier you report fraudulent activity, the lower your liability. If you have a joint credit card or bank account with someone, encourage that person to review his or her credit report as well since credit reports are specific to individuals. The 3 credit reporting agencies to contact are Equifax (800) 685-1111, Experian (800) 682-7654, and TransUnion (800) 916-8800. It is important to request copies from all 3 agencies because each reports different information. The reports usually provide consumers with guidance on how to correct errors or improper information on the reports. Correcting this information before it causes problems will reduce stress and save time. As in medicine, prevention is much easier to achieve than a cure.