Aug
8
2007

In addition to protecting patient health, veterinary professionals must ensure that personal and financial data – which can include a client’s social security number and bank account information – are secure. Failure to do so is tantamount to a breach of confidentiality, said Sue Gray, who talked about medical insurance theft during the American Veterinary Medical Association conference last month.

All data collected by veterinary clinics should be behind firewalls and encrypted, a service not provided by many office programs, Gray said.

Similar to identity theft, medical identity theft – also called health insurance abuse – is increasingly common in health care fields.

“If you think it’s not happening in your area you’re sadly mistaken,” said Gray, a registered health information administrator at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine. Gray participates on the state’s Identity Theft Task Force and told veterinary professionals that the crime is almost always perpetrated by a friend or relative who does not have health insurance, and it frequently involves current or former employees of health care clinics.

Within veterinary clinics, employees should have limited access to personal and financial information about pet owners. In fact, Gray suggests not keeping financial data in patient files and encourages veterinary professionals to keep credit card receipts in a locked storage area.

Using the human medical field as a reference point, Gray encourages protocols that forbid employees to leave client files unattended and to keep computer screens turned away from public view. In addition, employees should not discuss patient or client issues in open areas within the clinic. “You do not know who your audience is,” Gray warned.

She advises professionals to program computers to log-off after certain periods of idleness, establish passwords that are eight characters or longer, and discourage any sharing of passwords. Do not post passwords within the clinic (including desk drawers), and use shredders to discard all patient information, Gray said.

Medical identity theft entails someone using another’s insurance to cover his/her medical expenses and can cost medical providers hundreds if not thousands of dollars.

It can also damage a clinic’s reputation, Gray added. “The general consensus may be, ‘well, if they can’t even protect a client’s information, why should I entrust them with my pet’s health?’”

Once a person files a claim with your information it affects personal records and can influence eligibility for jobs and other areas of your life, Gray said during the July 18, 2007, presentation. Consider a scenario in which someone uses your medical insurance to file a claim for drug or alcohol addiction treatment.

To protect clients and practices, Gray suggests that front office personnel ask for photo identification when accepting payment and, on a basic level, make sure that clients know it is illegal to share insurance information for people and pets, she said.

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