Health care at job site is risky The bad news: Medical information available to your employer could derail your career.

Working Life

November 19, 1995|By Deborah L. Jacobs | Deborah L. Jacobs,CHRONICLE FEATURES

Low-cost health care, conveniently located. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is -- especially when the boss wears the stethoscope.

More workers are going to the company doctor than ever before. Many are eagerly taking advantage of corporate "wellness programs" stressing preventive care like flu shots and periodic screenings for heart disease and breast cancer.

Before you rush to have your blood pressure checked at the next "health awareness" week or sign up for a routine physical by the company doctor, consider the implications for your career. You might lose out on that promotion if your cholesterol level is too high. In rare cases, companies have fired employees with diseases that are expensive to treat or have rewritten company health insurance plans to exclude them.

Most employers try to protect confidentiality by creating separate files for medical records and developing privacy rules. Some even bring in outside consultants to run their health programs. Still, a single misplaced chart, overheard conversation or indiscreet administrator could leak private details into the office grapevine.

I recently asked four privacy experts to identify potential career risks of some routine tests and treatments. Here's their consensus:

* Flu shots: Good idea. Getting the shot at work is easier than finding the time to see your own doctor.

* Hearing test: Could borrow trouble. Mild hearing problems are not likely to lead to discrimination at work, but severe ones might.

* Allergy shots: Better not. If your employer finds out you have allergies, the company might be reluctant to let you do work that could aggravate your condition. In effect, you could lose your job.

* Blood pressure and cholesterol testing: Watch out. High test results could put you high on the list for the next round of layoffs.

* Cancer screening: Early detection (for instance, through Pap smears and mammograms) promotes early cure. Therefore, procrastinators and people who can't afford to pay for tests themselves should have them done at work, say the experts. Yet the prospect of costly medical bills and life-insurance payouts could lead to employment discrimination. Chances are, the boss will find out eventually if you're seriously ill, but you might not want the company to hear about it at the same time you do.

* Urinalysis: No way. This test can tell your boss that you smoke, take medication or have a disease like diabetes, so why risk it?

* Genetic screening and HIV tests: Never have these tests done at work. Bad news, and you could lose your job or have your insurance coverage reduced.

The Americans With Disabilities Act, in effect for three years, may protect you against some discrimination based on a medical condition. Unfortunately, the law is too new for us to know all its twists and turns.

Deborah Jacobs welcomes letters from readers and will address topics of general interest in this column. Contact her by e-mail ( or write to her at: Chronicle Features, 870 Market Street, Suite 1011, San Francisco, Calif. 94102. Please include your name, address and telephone number.

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