Patient Information Dumped
Last night, I watched "Trauma: Life in the ER" on Discovery Health. Doctors worked to help a patient who needed an arm amputation, was full of second degree burns and also suffered a ruptured spleen, which the docs described as "hamburger meat," after a drunk driver hit the patient's pickup truck head-on. I also saw--up close and personal, thanks to a lingering camera shot--a woman's blown apart hand, which she accidentally shot herself.
I took all this in while munching on a baked potato and chicken strips. I suppose you could say I have a strong stomach.
This story today somewhat turned that strong stomach. The tummy churning really has little to do with the fact that it's an abortion clinic, in all honesty. Any medical waste just laying out (investigators apparently found it "on the pavement across a five-lane street," as well as in Dumpsters) grosses me out, not to mention the fact that one woman actually picked the waste up and carted it back to her home. I was also shocked by the clinic operator's initial explanation of "They had a new employee on Saturday," which is in this article here, and serves as his explanation as to why medical waste and patient information was tossed in a Dumpster at one of the clinics.
But getting beyond all of the delicate topics involved and the queasiness factor, an important HIM-related issue also exists in this situation. While the pro-life activist that found the patient information turned what she found over to police, she "made copies of ‘representative samples of what was found in the trash,'" and according to the FOX article, she said she found 200-300 patient records. Dr. Abraham Alberto Hodari, who operates the WomanCare chain of clinics, said in the Detroit Free Press, however, that the protestors found patient sign-in sheets, rather than actual full medical records. The Detroit News article says that the patient information found was in "300 medical documents that included insurance, pathology and abortion schedules. Most were dated in 2008 and some included patients' names, phone numbers, pregnancy stage and abortion date." A police officer involved in the preliminary investigation said last week "that up to 50 patients could be identified in medical records, which were mostly created in February and included personal information and the types of procedures performed."
Scary stuff, no matter what exactly was found in the way of patient information. Already, according to FOX News, "at least one document has been posted on the Web site of an anti-abortion activist." Also, on a bit of a lighter note (and this story is just begging for a lighter note, is it not?) for you HIM professionals, the FOX article also gently informs readers that "throwing unshredded medical documents into a Dumpster is not considered a reasonable safeguard" to ensure that protected health information is not misused or wrongfully disclosed under federal patient privacy rules. Just so you know. The article also offered another caution to readers: "Officials advised against individuals digging through medical waste." Again, thanks.
Dr. Hodari invited a reporter from the Free Press in to see his spanking new biomedical waste bags, trash cans and paper shredders. He may face a misdemeanor charge for improper disposal of patient records and also may face sanctions for improperly disposing medical waste, a charge that would include a fine of up to $2,500 per violation and an additional $1,000 for each day the violation continues.
Looking at it only from an HIM standpoint and not at the medical waste/abortion rights aspect, how does something like this happen in the age of HIPAA and state laws? If I knew my medical record was one of the ones that might've ended up in the Dumpster, and then landed in the hands of protestors angry about what was in that record, I'd be terrified. In my opinion, cases like this are the reasons that privacy laws exist: information could end up in the wrong hands.