What Do I Say to Patients Who Ask About My Team’s Vaccination Status?
From CEDR CEO & Founder Paul Edwards:
As vaccinations continue to be distributed to more and more members of the American workforce, one of the recurring questions we are getting in the CEDR Solution Center concerns how to respond to patients who ask about whether or not your team has been vaccinated.
Patients might pose this question over the phone before their scheduled appointment, or might ask it to one of your employees during their visit.
Your Employees’ Health Information Is Protected
In response to such a question, it’s important to remember that your employees’ personal health information is protected in just the same way as your patients’ health information. Therefore, it is generally not a good idea to offer information to your patients that might expose any of your employees’ inability (or unwillingness) to get vaccinated.
If a patient asks about whether or not your team is being vaccinated, let them know that you are encouraging (or requiring) your team to get the vaccine as soon as it is available to them, and that you are continuing to follow CDC and state guidelines related to preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus.
You could even go so far as to outline the steps you are taking to make it easy and even desirable for your employees to get vaccinated. Still, you’ll want to stop short of providing specifics related to what portion of your team will or will not be getting a vaccine, or offering reasons why some employees might be unable or unwilling to get a vaccine.
Before You Send That Announcement…
At this time, we also recommend that you avoid the temptation to get a release from your employees to allow you to share their PHI (including information about whether or not they have received a Covid vaccine), or to make any other public declaration about your employee’s vaccination statuses.
This is not to say that an employee cannot answer truthfully about their own status if they choose to, one-on-one. But even this could lead to questions about the rest of the team’s status, which is confidential.
Even if all of your employees have received the vaccine and all are in agreement that it’s okay to share this with the public, it’s still a bad idea to do so. There are multiple reasons why you would not want to post or publicly declare your team’s vaccination status. Here are a few of them:
It sets a strange precedent.
We know that everyone is ready for this pandemic nightmare to end, and that we all want to resume “business as usual” at the earliest possible convenience. This is as true for your team as it is for your patients.
But sharing your team’s PHI with regard to their Covid vaccination status is a violation of your lawful duty as an employer to keep the PHI of your employees private. This responsibility doesn’t mean “don’t share PHI unless you can get your employees to sign a release!” It means that you have an obligation and they have a right to expect this type of information to be kept strictly confidential and shared only on a need-to-know basis.
You already know this. You wouldn’t feel inclined to share the fact that all of your employees had received a flu vaccine this year; or that your entire team had received the required childhood vaccinations for measles, mumps, and rubella.
And, even if you wanted to share that information, what if one of your employees was uncomfortable doing so for whatever reason? This would put them in the rather uncomfortable spot of having to justify their decision to keep this particular piece of PHI private, as opposed to the information related to the Covid vaccine, which they agreed to share. This is simply not a position you want to be in as an employer. The employee, regardless of what they sign, can easily claim later that they felt obligated or coerced to share that information and did not, in fact, do so voluntarily.
When it comes to your team’s PHI, it’s imperative that information remains protected, full stop.
It’s a potential misrepresentation of the risk of infection.
We get it — telling your patients that you’re all vaccinated could give them those warm fuzzy feelings and make them feel like it’s safe to schedule an appointment with your practice.
But the reality of the situation is that health experts still stress that even people who have been vaccinated may still be able to spread the coronavirus in some cases. Your practice will therefore still need to follow CDC guidelines for minimizing the potential spread of the virus for the indefinite future, which is also still your patients’ best line of defense against potential infection.
What happens when someone shows up to an appointment without a mask or refuses to practice safe distancing at your practice under the logic that your entire team has already been vaccinated? You’ll still find yourself having to lay out the real level of remaining risk for those patients despite your team’s very public vaccination status. And, as you can imagine, it’s better to avoid such a situation altogether than to potentially set yourself up for blowback by sharing information that probably should have been kept private in the first place.
Employees who can’t get the vaccine may feel discriminated against.
By calling attention to your employees who have been vaccinated, it could make the employees who have not been vaccinated due to a protected health-related or religious reason feel targeted or discriminated against.
Patients and other employees may start to treat them differently, or even make efforts to avoid working with those employees altogether, which could lead to a variety of issues. For this reason and others, it’s best to keep this information private without limiting your employees’ rights to discuss such topics with each other if they so choose.
It’s better to just say what you mean.
What are you actually getting at by making a public declaration that your entire team has been vaccinated? You’re trying to share with your patients that your office takes patient safety seriously and that it’s safe to schedule appointments at your practice. That is the message you need to keep hammering home.
Since general guidance on topics like this one don’t always help employers get straight to the heart of how to handle a specific situation, we’ve been asked for a script that might help employees respond to this query directly. This morning, I worked with our Compliance Team to put the following together.
Again, it’s important to remember that, as an employer, you have an obligation to keep your employee’s medical information confidential. The following script is designed to help you meet your obligation while also addressing your patients’ concerns.
We are encouraging our team to get vaccinated as soon as the shots become available to them and are committed to providing a safe environment for both our team and our patients.
That said, we’re continuing to wear all necessary PPE and following CDC guidance to minimize the potential for the virus to spread at our practice. Even though our team may have the ability to get vaccinated at this time, that’s not the case for most of our patients. Public health experts are cautioning that even someone who has been vaccinated could still potentially transmit the virus to others. Therefore, we are still operating under the assumption that our patients are not all vaccinated.
That means we will continue to maintain all of the same health and safety protocols that have been in place throughout the pandemic, and we’re updating our efforts whenever the CDC releases new information.
We are trying our best to make it as easy as possible for each member of our team to get access to the vaccine, but their medical information is private so we, unfortunately, can’t disclose anyone’s vaccination status.
We hope this helps a bit. Please be on the lookout for an invitation to my upcoming HR ‘Ask Me Anything’ presentations, during which I and my Director of Compliance, Jennie McLaughlin, will be answering questions from members of our professional community live. Here are the details:
CEDR Members-Only Session: Friday, February 19 at 2 pm ET. Register here. Registration limited to CEDR Solution Center members only.
HR Base Camp Session: Thursday, February 25 at 3 pm ET in HR Base Camp
For more in-depth guidance, and for answers to other common vaccine questions, please refer to our most recent article on Vaccinations in the Workplace.
Updated February 11, 2021; originally published February 9, 2021.