Alleged privacy violations lead to 16 firings

November 25, 2009 8:20:13 AM PST
Eyewitness News has learned that 16 employees of the Harris County Hospital District - most of whom worked at Ben Taub General Hospital - were fired last week for allegedly looking through patients' confidential medical information. The fired employees range from supervisors to assistants. A source tells Eyewitness News some of the information accessed is that of a Ben Taub doctor who was robbed and shot late last month.

This is something the Hospital District didn't want to talk about, but after pushing for answers, we finally got some. The 16 people were paid to protect your privacy, but according to hospital officials, they did just the opposite.

When you're admitted as a patient at a hospital, you expect your medical records to remain private. Very few people are allowed access. It is the law. But we've learned one patient's privacy was violated and by those who should know better.

"We're seeing more of that these days," said Dr. Aashish Shah.

Eyewitness News obtained the termination paperwork for two Ben Taub employees, but there are 14 others we've learned who viewed a patient's record even though they had no reason to. All 16 have been fired and they range from doctors to supervisors to staff nurses, not only at Ben Taub, but across the entire hospital district.

According to a source, they were all interested in just one patient, Dr. Stephanie Wuest, a first-year medical resident who was shot multiple times late last month during an attempted robbery. She was taken to Ben Taub, where she also works.

Aashish Shah, who is both a doctor and a lawyer, says even though Dr. Wuest was an insider, the law still applies.

"If I were a practitioner in a hospital, it doesn't mean I can access those records," said Shah.

The hospital district immediately terminated all 16 people. The official reason was a violation of HIPAA policy, the federal privacy law. In the employee comments section, an assistant staff nurse wrote she was sorry. She was just doing she says what a doctor asked.

No one with the Harris County Hospital District would comment on camera. Instead they sent a statement saying, "Our policies that protect our patients are always vigorously enforced. These actions were in the best interests of our patients."

Shah says they had no other choice.

"Medical information is so intimate and personal it has to be afforded this level of security," said Shah.

The Hospital District is required to report the breach to the federal government. A hospital spokesperson said they will comply with all reporting guidelines.

When Dr. Wuest was admitted to Ben Taub Hospital, her family specifically asked that no information be released on her condition. We were not yet able to reach them for comment.

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