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, who was recently hospitalized in its psychiatric ward, a person familiar with the matter said today.
An additional six physicians also 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 workers were caught snooping 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.
“It’s not only surprising, it’s very frustrating and it’s very disappointing,” said Jeri Simpson, the Santa Monica hospital’s director of human resources, who handled the discipline in the first instance.
“I feel like we do everything that we possibly can to ensure the privacy of our patients and I know we feel horrible that it happened again.”
Simpson said UCLA treats celebrities “all the time and you never hear about this.”
“I don’t know what it is about this particular person, I don’t know what it is about her,” she added, referring to Spears.
Hoping to head off such snooping, UCLA officials had sent a memo the morning Spears was hospitalized on Jan. 31, warning employees that they were not allowed to peruse records unless directly caring for a patient. Doing so is considered a violation of a federal patient privacy law called the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which went into effect in 2003.
“Each member of our workforce, which includes our physicians, faculty, employees, volunteers and students, is responsible to ensure that medical information is only accessed as required for treatment, for facilitating payment of a claim, or for supporting our healthcare operations,” chief compliance and privacy officer Carole A. Klove wrote in an e-mail to all employees.
“Please remember that any unauthorized access by a workforce member will be subject to disciplinary action, which could include termination.”
Klove declined to discuss specifics of the most recent breaches today, saying they involved confidential patient and personnel matters. “We regularly monitor access to patient records, and in the event of an inappropriate access, we will investigate it, and if a violation if found, we will take appropriate action which can include termination.”
Klove said she regularly reminds employees of patient privacy rules and said that all workers must sign statements of confidentiality when they are hired. The hospital is also considering having them sign such statements annually.
The records reviewed by those who are slated to be fired were not from Spears’ most recent hospital stay, but rather from previous hospitalizations at UCLA, a source familiar with the matter said. Those disciplined include both medical and nonmedical employees, although no doctors were targeted for firing, the person said.
When employees access a patient’s records electronically, they leave an electronic trail, which can later be traced back. “We advise all of our workforce that their password is their pin for lack of a better analogy, and it is their signature,” Klove said. When it is used, the systems track which screens they view and for how long.
Those with access to clinical information include healthcare workers and others — such as billing and admitting staffers — who need to have that information to perform their jobs, she said. Housekeepers, for instance, would not have access to electronic medical records.
Nicole Moore, lead organizer for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299 at UCLA, said her union is representing three of the health workers who recently were told they would be fired. The hospital’s employees are represented by several different unions.
Moore said she is trying to determine whether disciplinary actions were administered fairly.
“We believe that the university has a responsibility to their patients but also their employees to administer fair and consistent discipline to everybody, regardless of their position whether it’s a doctor who violated it or a certified nursing assistant,” Moore said.
Klove said doctors are overseen by a separate entity, the medical staff governing board, than other employees.
Spears was admitted to UCLA under Section 5150 of California’s Welfare and Institutions Code, which allows patients to be held against their will for up to 72 hours for evaluation if they are deemed a danger to themselves or others. Her hold was extended.
Spears was released on Feb. 6, after nearly a week of treatment.
Poor girl literally has no privacy.