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Confidentiality in a Coffee Shop? Conducting Business in Non-Private Places

Julie Entwistle, MBA, BHSc (OT), BSc (Health / Gerontology)

In many ways, the local coffee shop has become the new “mobile office”.  Grab a beverage and maybe food, the WiFi is free and available, and no one needs to pay rent or worry about booking a reservation.

I was grabbing a tea the other day and while in line there were two women at a table beside me having a meeting.  I got the sense that the one woman was providing a service to help the other woman find her birth parents.  Within minutes I knew where the one woman was born, her date of birth, birth name, the people that adopted her, date of her adoption, where she grew up, current address…probably enough information for identity theft (if I was into that), but definitely more than I needed or cared to know, and probably more than what this woman would want strangers to overhear.

I have a client that likes to meet in a coffee shop.  He prefers that to his house where he has family that can overhear our delicate conversations.  Before agreeing to meet him there I reminded him that confidentiality is difficult in a public place, and there is no guarantee that people won’t overhear or listen to our conversation.  We discussed alternatives, but in the end, he accepted the privacy risks and continues to request a public place as our meeting spot.

As health professionals we are, or should be, always cognizant of personal privacy and information protection.  We need to safeguard our clients from potential information breaches by keeping our paper and electronic records safe and secure, but by also being very aware of our surroundings and the likelihood of our services and conversations becoming public.  Even in hospitals where there are ward rooms and open treatment areas, busy hallways and nurses’ stations: privacy and confidentiality, while difficult to maintain at times in these public forums, must be maintained.

I recently had a medical appointment at a hospital.  I had forms that I needed to bring.  When I arrived, a volunteer took my forms and in the open waiting area began summarizing these with me.  I was quiet and asked her if our conversation needed to be public.  She was an older woman and seemed startled by my question.  But honestly, not only was I uncomfortable talking to a volunteer (who is not bound by the same privacy and confidentiality rules as health professionals) about my appointment, but my discomfort was heightened when she was reviewing my personal papers openly.

The risk of personal information and privacy breaches are significant.  The media is constantly sharing stories of our information being sold, hacked or otherwise being “gathered” for purposes we don’t often consent to.  I guess the most important thing to consider is that we are mindful and aware of the information we provide about ourselves, to whom we provide it, and the presence of others in these discussions.  A coffee shop might be a suitable place to conduct some business, but I would argue not all, and that anyone engaging in conversations in public places, health professionals or not, need to be mindful and aware of their surroundings.  Consent is key, and it is important to draw people’s awareness to the location and to ask them for their permission to have sensitive or otherwise private conversations in non-private locales.

 

6 Comments

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Well done…glad to see this topic covered….Thank you for sharing.

    1. Erin Ridpath says:

      Thank you!

  2. Katrina Pacey says:

    Great comment Julie! It seems that it is easy to forget that not everyone is in their own little world and uninterested in the lives of others.

    1. Erin Ridpath says:

      Thank you Katrina. Definitely just something to be aware of.

  3. Leah Topping says:

    Thank you for creating awareness of this!
    I will definitely make sure I explain this to my clients in more detail when they ask to meet in a coffee shop and get informed consent.

    1. Erin Ridpath says:

      You’re very welcome Leah! Thanks for your comment!