The Most Important Thing I Learned in Medical School

When I was a third-year medical student at a well-known NYC school, I was taking an elevator with some other students. We were discussing a case that we had just seen.

Along with us in the elevator was a professor whom we didn’t know. He didn’t say anything until we exited the elevator and he followed us so that he could reprimand us for talking about a patient where someone might have been able to overhear us. “You never know when someone in the patient’s family could have been in the elevator.”

Did you know what HIPAA stands for?

Even though we had not mentioned the patient by name, that lesson stuck with me throughout my whole career. From that point on (and that was pre-HIPAA – the laws designed to protect a patient’s information), I was always very conscious of everyone’s right to privacy. There were many times that I had to end a discussion with someone when I realized that our conversation could be overheard.

I used this story from 50 years ago to teach this same lesson to any new employee in my office, whether it was a doctor, nurse practitioner, nurse or receptionist.

It does remind me of a humorous incident which happened to me at the Boston airport while I was awaiting a flight.  It was very crowded and the only seat available near the gate was next to a woman talking in a very loud voice on her cellphone.  Call after call,  she was discussing her patients’ test results. 

After listening to her go on and on, I whispered to her, “I have one word for you – HIPAA.”

With a look of extreme annoyance, she responded, “I’m a veterinarian, stupid.”