Two men in the District who are being treated for syphilis by private doctors said the city's health department asked them insensitive personal questions and -- at least in one case -- didn't do enough to protect their identity.
The first patient said an envelope marked "urgent" from the Department of Health was stuck on the outside of his mailbox where any passersby could see it. Although there was no mention of his sexually transmitted disease, he said the envelope obviously would raise questions from anyone who saw it.
He had trouble contacting the staff member at the health office, and when he did, he was subjected to a 30-to-45-minute phone call at work, in which he was asked detailed questions about his sex life. He said he was never told he had the option to answer the questions or not.
He is not the only patient who felt abused by the process.
A second patient told NBC4 that a health department worker told him that the questions about his syphilis treatment and personal behavior were "required by law." He said he was never told answering was optional and the experience left him angry and feeling abused.
"I told them … if they want to speak to me again, they can go through my doctor," the second patient said. "I won't speak to them ever again."
It's unclear how many people with STDs have had similar experiences, but the health department stood by its procedures.
Dr. Shannon Hader, administrator of the city's HIV/AIDS office, said STD infections are a major public health problem in the District. She said the city's 25 public health investigators are trained to be both "sensitive and confidential" and the department welcomes any complaints about its procedures.
But Dr. Hader said it's important, especially in the instance of syphilis, to find out quickly what other partners a person has had to encourage prevention and treatment. She said syphilis is especially viral early with symptons, but can still be present later without any obvious signs.
Physicians assistant Harry Wehry, who first brought the story to the attention of News4, said he was concerned that overly aggressive health care workers will keep many people from seeking tests or treatment.
"Of course, that's my biggest concern," he said.