Reports this week that the UCLA Medical Center has moved to fire 13 employees and suspended six others for unauthorized access to confidential medical records of pop star Britney Spears is a sign that training and regulations may not be working in some hospitals, experts told SCMagazineUS.com.
Spears was admitted to the UCLA Medical in January under Section 5150 of California's Welfare and Institutions Code, which allows hospitals to hold patients against their will for up to 72 hours for evaluation if they are considered a danger to themselves or others. UCLA Medical Center extended her hold until she was released on Feb. 6.
"I'm a privacy advocate so it's hard to understand how one's own training could be ignored in order to gain access to a celebrity's medical records," Beth Givens, founder and director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, told SCMagazineUS.com. "It's hard for me to comprehend -- apparently stardom is such a strong magnet that some employees will simply ignore penalties and sanctions and access medical records without authorization."
Givens said the firings, first reported in The Los Angeles Times, send a strong message, but the hospital might want to consider additional technology to dissuade hospital workers from accessing potentially juicy celebrity data.
Because the UCLA Medical Center is in Los Angeles, where many high-profile people live, Givens suggested that when hospital workers access a celebrity's medical records at the UCLA Medical Center, a warning message should appear.
The pop-up should contain a note indicating that an employee should access the record only if he or she has a legitimate reason, she said. The warning should also include a reminder of penalties for unauthorized access to personal medical records, which are protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).
The UCLA Health System, in a statement, said it could not confirm the suspensions but said whenever potential breaches arise, officials will investigate and possibly take disciplinary action.
"UCLA Health System considers patient confidentiality a critical part of our mission of teaching, research and patient care," the statement said. "All staff members are required to sign confidentiality agreements as a condition of their employment and complete extensive training on HIPAA-related privacy and security issues. We have stringent policies to protect patient confidentiality and address violations of those policies."
Medical organizations should “provide a balance between providing access with authentication and following with an audit trail and monitoring of the audit," John Thielens, vice president of technology at message security firm Tumbleweed Communications, told SCMagazineUS.com.
Givens, meanwhile, said the hospital should consider additional firings or suspensions of doctors.
"Doctors are at the top of the food chain in medical settings, and I don't think sanctions and penalties are meaningful unless the doctors are sanctioned as well," said. "Of course, that must be made known to rest of the employees."