When to Permit Voice Recordings in Your Practice

December 2, 2015

Patients have many legitimate reasons for recording their doctor's visit. But before you say "yes" make sure to understand state and federal statutes.

Just because an activity is considered immoral, unethical, or illegal doesn't mean it isn't taking place. In medical clinics and hospitals across the nation, patients, doctors, families, and staff are covertly recording conversations, procedures, and daily happenings. And since this conduct is clandestine (not to mention ridiculously easy to do), it's impossible to estimate how common it actually is.

People have a variety of reasons for wanting to capture their interactions, especially when it comes to healthcare. There's always the possibility that someone wants to record evidence of patient abuse or neglect. But usually people's reasons are simpler than that. Patients or their advocates can be perplexed by explanations surrounding diagnoses, prescriptions, test results, or upcoming procedures, and they may simply want a recording to review for clarity following their appointment. Staff might be seeking digital documentation of unprofessional behavior or workplace safety concerns. And physicians could be surreptitiously tracking staff performance or patient demeanor.

Has it ever occurred to you that someone might be chronicling private conversations at your practice? Even if the possibility seems remote, it's prudent to contemplate in advance how you will deal with this activity should it ever come up. While state laws and federal legislation must always prevail, here are four other points to ponder:

1. Consider the risks.

Any activity that has a furtive tone to it is usually considered suspect. That includes recording other people without their knowledge or permission. Even if doing so is legal, it probably isn't right. If you feel compelled to secretly gather evidence of unprofessional, unpredictable, or unbecoming behavior, think again. You could be putting yourself and your practice at great risk. From a moral perspective, a face-to-face, witnessed conversation with another party about any concerns you have will likely trump an unauthorized surveillance recording. If you suspect that a patient or someone on your team is inappropriately using a recording device you must be prepared to confront that individual, even though by doing so you may be risking a relationship.

2. Get good advice.

There are at least three resources you should consult to help you figure out how to handle unwelcome or unexpected recordings: a medico-legal professional, an experienced colleague, and someone you trust who's under the age of 30. The medico-legal professional will be in a position to advise you on the ins and outs of the overarching rules and regulations in your jurisdiction. Your medical colleague will be able to listen to your concerns and work through the pros and cons of whether the recording is appropriate and in your best interest. And the person under 30? They'll be able to provide you with a fresh perspective about current communication trends and the expectations of a younger generation. Taking all three viewpoints into account will enable you to make an informed decision about the best course of action.

3. Welcome the possibility.

You may want to take a pre-emptive approach to the inevitability of being recorded. Why not be transparent about your level of willingness to share certain instructions or basic diagnostic information on recording devices - especially when patients ask your permission to enhance their understanding? Refusing to cooperate under those circumstances could raise red flags. You could be even more proactive by actually inviting patients to record confusing or complicated information before they even ask. If you want to get really high-tech, you may want to pre-record some standard explanations for common procedures, tests, and medications which can then be sent to patients via e-mail or text message as an MP3 recording. You could also forward customized voice memos to patients if you have the time and electronic expertise to do so.

4. Think about innocent bystanders.

While you and another party may agree to have a recorded conversation, you must always be mindful of other people whose voices or images may inadvertently be taped. This is entirely unacceptable. And if you have recording equipment in your waiting room as a security precaution, for example, you owe it to visitors to alert them to the fact the area is being monitored. Straightforward signage posted on the waiting room wall should cover that concern. It is neither professional nor appropriate for innocent bystanders to be unknowingly caught in the electronic crossfire of anyone's hidden cameras and microphones.

Privacy is swiftly becoming a thing of the past, and it's common knowledge that nearly every move we make is being watched. Still, you get to demonstrate respect to your patients and colleagues by being aware of the possibility of covert recordings and alerting people to your own policies, procedures, and limitations around capturing conversations and activities in your practice.

Sue Jacquesis The Civility CEO®, a veteran forensic medical investigator turned corporate civility expert, keynote speaker, and author. Jacques helps individuals, businesses, and medical practices gain confidence, earn respect, and prosper through professionalism. She may be reached at info@thecivilityceo.com.