Giving e-health a black eye

More than a year ago Mickey and I blogged about the breach of privacy during President Clinton’s hospital stay (Enquiring minds want to know). High-profile privacy violations are in the news again.

Take the case of Britney Spears:

UCLA Medical Center is taking steps to fire at least 13 employees and has suspended at least six others for snooping in the confidential medical records of pop star Britney Spears during her recent hospitalization in its psychiatric unit, a person familiar with the matter said Friday.

In addition, six physicians face discipline for peeking at her computerized records, the person said.

Questioned about the breaches, officials acknowledged that it was not the first time UCLA had disciplined workers for looking at Spears’ records. Several were caught prying into records after Spears gave birth to her first son, Sean Preston, in September 2005 at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center and Orthopaedic Hospital, officials said. Some were fired.

and also George Clooney:

Just weeks after George Clooney was injured in a motorcycle accident and taken to Palisades Medical Center, CBS 2 HD has exclusively learned that dozens of employees, including doctors and nurses, have been suspended for accessing Clooney’s confidential information.

The 46-year-old actor suffered a broken rib and road rash while a companion riding with him suffered a broken foot in the collision with another vehicle.

Within minutes, the media seemed to know everything about Clooney’s condition, and sources tell CBS 2 HD that hospital officials are now investigating whether or not their own employees leaked information about Clooney to the media.

Such episodes are especially damaging because they constitute the public’s knowledge of the state of medical privacy with EHRs and thereby undermine support for digital records. There needs to be:

  • Real-time approval for flagged VIP cases
  • Prior approval for relevant hospital personnel in VIP cases
  • Dismissals of the violators

Clooney said:

[W]hile I very much believe in a patient’s right to privacy, I would hope that this could be settled without suspending medical workers.

It’s nice of Clooney to be so magnanimous, but I disagree with his statement. When celebrities enter the hospital there’s an opportunity to benefit public health. The classic example is how Betty Ford’s treatment for alcoholism opened up national discussion on that issue. Let’s hear about how a celebrity’s life was saved by CPOE, decision support or some other electronic tool, rather than confirming our worst fears about electronic privacy. And let’s see to it that violators are dealt with in a serious way.

March 20, 2008

4 thoughts on “Giving e-health a black eye”

  1. This won’t help either:
    “The State Department apologized on Friday that its workers had snooped into the passport files of presidential candidates Sens. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain.”

    Two people have gotten fired so far. They may also need rules stricter than just logging access and checking if a question comes up.

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  4. The problem is the respsect for privacy, not the technology. The same breach of privacy happens with paper charts. In a way, an EMR is better, there is an electronic record of who and when the records were viewed. You don’t have that with paper.
    Proper education of staff about privacy and swift and harsh punishment for those who breach privacy is the key.
    The technology of an EMR should be leveraged in conjuction with policies such as limiting who can view records of VIP’s. Overall, EMR’s are more secure than a pile of paper.

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