Strictly in confidence

At some time or another, every receptionist will encounter a situation where they will need to make a decision to protect a patient’s confidentiality. At times this will require them to act in a way that frustrates the person requesting information, who will then become irate.

Dental receptionists are by no means alone in, from time to time, having to refuse to provide information when asked. All big companies have to offer extensive training to ensure the protection of their customer data under both commercial ‘in confidence’ rules and Data Protection Law.

To assist dental professionals, Principles of Confidentiality has been published by the GDC. The principles clarifying circumstances under which information can be disclosed as follows:

• Patients are entitled to expect you to keep information about them confidential

• Confidentiality is central to the trust between a patient and their dentist

• The same duty of confidentiality applies to all members of the dental team

• The right to confidentiality continues after a patient’s death

• The patient’s consent is necessary before information is disclosed and only the minimum information for the purpose given.

Every working day receptionists encounter situations in which they could unintentionally disclose information about patients. This could be when responding to an enquiry on the phone from an employer or school, relatives asking about a patient’s whereabouts or being overhead when talking to patients. The practice should develop a confidentiality policy and ensure that reception staff are fully aware of how to keep information confidential as patients could take legal action if they consider their rights have been breached.

When designing the reception area, thought should be given to patients’ need for privacy. It is essential to create a space in which people can talk to the receptionist without being overheard. Many receptionists find it impossible to have private conversations with patients because the reception desk is the focal point of the waiting room and its activities attract attention.

When possible, it is advisable to arrange seating in such a way so it is not directly facing and is at a respectful distance away from the desk. When dealing with a queue of patients at the desk, receptionists should insist that a courteous distance is maintained between the patient they are working with and the next person in the queue.

Every receptionist must be aware of how breaches of confidentiality can occur in routine work situations. The practice should provide training and guidance on how they can be avoided so that, when faced with any situation in which a patient’s rights could be breached, the receptionist can refer to agreed protocols rather than having to make on-the-spot decisions.

With a clear understanding of the guiding principles of confidentially, procedures can be agreed for those circumstances when it is deemed necessary to release information in the ‘public interest’. This could be appropriate when a patient puts their own or others health and safety at serious risk, or if you think that you have confidential information which would prevent or detect a serious crime e.g. child abuse.

The trust between patients and their dental care providers is an essential part of their dental experience. Respectful reception services set the tone, and the GDC standards are a valuable guide on how to achieve this.

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