“Patients are lying to their doctors; they are lying to protect their privacy,” stated Kathryn Serkes. Serkes, the founder of the Doctor Patient Medical Association addressed privacy as a key aspect in the doctor-patient relationship in a presentation at the International Summit on the Future of Health Privacy in Washington, D.C.  on June 6. She noted that the lying patient problem is worrisome on the clinical side, but survey, opinion and marketing researchers have reason to fear its impact on their own work. Unreliable patient information leads to unreliable medical data, which leads to unreliable research data.

Of course, privacy concerns are not the only reason a patient may be lying to their physician. As explored in a February 19 article in the Wall Street Journal, patients may simply be trying to please their doctor, either consciously or unconcsiously. For instance, they may be reporting that they perfectly follow the regimen for a given pharmaceutical prescription or are getting a certain amount of exercise a day. Still, given the many security breaches of personal health information over the last decade, privacy concerns among patients are certainly warranted.

Healthcare covered entities and business associates are currently grappling with new Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) rules for privacy and data security. However, Cora Tung Han, a privacy attorney at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), urged conference attendees to do better than the HIPAA standard and to work towards greater transparency in medical privacy. Han suggested that privacy policies should be shorter and more simple so patients can understand them and trust that their health data will remain private.

Once doctors have greater trust from their patients, Han posited, those patients may be more willing to confide sensitive information to their doctors, such as details on drug addiction or mental health issues. Han warned that such trust can only be built by physicians simplifying their patients’ privacy notices and privacy choices beyond the demands of the HIPAA regulations. Other presenters dovetailed with Han’s conerns, discussing their efforts to create workable simplified privacy notices.

Unfortunately, considering the bureaucracies involved in all aspects of the healthcare marketplace, often required by laws like HIPAA, a shortening or simplifying of privacy notice and choice doesn’t seem likely in the medical arena anytime soon. The desires of many patients (and FTC attorneys) for easier privacy decision-making don’t appear likely to be satisfied just yet.